Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Restless Young Men

“Weren’t the biographies of all great men filled with this same kind of youthful groping, this same kind of rebellion against their fathers and their fathers’ ways?”
--Revolutionary Road

Paul in Paul's Case by Willa Cather.
Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.
The Real Life Frank Abagnale Jr. (whose story was featured in the book and movie Catch Me If You Can).

All 3 restless young men fighting to escape their fathers' (men they at once admired and resented) curses of mediocrity nearly, or completely, achieve ruin in their own lives.

Cather's Paul steals money from his employer and flees to New York with dreams of a glamorous new life, surrounded by the arts - free of his middle-class existence and the "horrible yellow wallpaper" in his room. Similarly, Frank Abagnale Jr. runs away from home once his father's trouble with the IRS plunges his family into impecuniousness. He, like Paul, lies, cheats, and steals his way to wealth. From what I've read so far, Yates' Frank Wheeler has the same begrudging respect, coupled with disgust, for his father as do Paul and Abagnale - wondering "...who wanted to be a dopey salesman in the first place, acting like a big deal with a briefcase full of boring catalogues, talking about machines all day to a bunch of dumb executives with cigars?"

He as an adolescent also plans a trip - his on a freight train - to begin his own life: "[Frank] spent all his free time in a plan for riding rails to the West Coast. ...he had rehearsed many times the way he would handle himself." He steals his father's hat for his journey and stuffs it with newspapers so that it would fit his small head properly, just as Frank Abagnale Jr. borrowed behaviors and epigrams from his father and used them to his advantage.

These three characters all exhibit a restless, impatient quest toward manhood - but not just any state of manliness - one that would eclipse whatever claims to greatness their fathers' may have laid, taking from them the estimable, leaving behind the execrable.

In Revolutionary Road, it's made clear early in the book that Frank values masculinity, admiring "men who looked like they’d never been boys at all", posing to affect a more distinguished jawline, "the face he'd given himself in the mirror since boyhood and which no photograph had ever achieved", "saunter[ing] manfully" to his father's heavy briefcase as a child and "pretend[ing] it was his own". Abagnale's heroes are pilots, doctors, lawyers, James Bond, Paul's those great men of the stage - and each of these three young men pretended to their goals before they're old enough to achieve them.

Unfortunately, (100 year old spoiler alert!!!) Paul kills himself once he realizes he'll be returned to obscurity, Frank Abagnale Jr. is caught forging checks and imprisoned (though he eventually begins work as an FBI fraud specialist) and I don't yet know what comes of Frank Wheeler. I haven't finished the book.

There seems to be a recurring theme in literature (and movies) of Restless Young Men. Freud's Oedipus Complex, perhaps? Except without the creepy part about marrying one's own mother.... I'll keep a keen eye out as I continue Revolutionary Road.

TRIVIA - Leonardo DiCaprio played both Frank Abagnale Jr. AND Frank Wheeler in the film adaptations of Catch Me If You Can and Revolutionary Road. Coincidence? I think he has that earnest, Restless Young Man Look about him.

"We became drivers and garbage men, so that our children could become doctors and lawyers, so that our grandchildren could become artists and writers, so that our great grandchildren could become models and socialites."

1 Comment:

Amateur Reader said...

This is a great theme, going back to Odysseus, at least.