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Dialectical resolution of anti-suburban motifs in John Burnham Schwartz

Veering off the road
Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Reservation Road


Reservation Road may be a novel that resists genres, but Schwartz makes conscious choices in his muscular narrative to allude, and thus compete, with anti-suburban novelists of the Eisenhower era, Richard Yates principle among them. Schwartz choice of title creates an alliterative dissonance with Yates that has its own foment beneath a picturesque restraint. To call the manufactured conformity of middlebrow sublets revolutionary, as Yates does, creates one level of irony, but Schwartz makes it derivative and layered. A reservation is a contained space, or can imply that something is held back. To juxtapose this against a revolution that is a mockery in the first place calls into question the very nature of American exceptionalism.

Not that Schwartz creates an exact correspondence. Frank and April Wheeler are stereotypical cutouts. This can be seen even in the film adaptation with DiCaprio and Winslet that came, went, and gave the Yates estate a profitable infusion. Ethan Learner, the protagonist in Schwartz’es tale of something missing, is conventional but introspective. His marriage is sound compared to that of Dwight, a lawyer hanging onto a cliff for dear life. Dwight has significant impulse control issues, an ex wife, a young son whom Dwight is close to losing because he is too quick with the back of his hand.

The driving force of the plot is a vehicular homicide which disrupts the fabric of the universe for the Learner’s, for Dwight, for the people in their New England community, infusing a touch of hard boiled noir to Schwartz’es minimalist approach. Yates offers no such dramatic event for his post-war generation gone befuddled. The Wheeler marriage had no sound foundation from the start. This is the crux of the problem Yates offers, one which most readers are familiar: Monogamy is no picnic. Pregnancy termination and extramarital affairs create only more complications as opposed to offering liberation.

Reservation Road, as a farewell to the aspirations of the 20th century, is more nuanced, unwilling to offer its audience easy resolutions for its losses. For the tradition it which it operates, Reservation Road is nearly a perfect homage that builds on what it imitates.