Many thanks to John Self for recommending Richard Yates' Young Hearts Crying in his blog, which he rates even higher than Revolutionary Road. I have just finished it and although I'm not sure if it's superior to Revolutionary Road, it is certainly as good. I find it hard to believe that Yates languished in semi-obscurity for so long whilst writers like Updike and Roth were celebrated as pretenders to the Great American Novel, as he is every bit their equal.
Yates' genius lies in his ability to capture that brief period that most of us go through in our late teens and early 20s, when we think that we're really going to become something, one day. His characters all lead dull, suburban lives but because they have artistic sensibilities they believe that they are in some way special. In Revolutionary Road the main characters - Frank and April Wheeler - live a comfortable life and regularly have amicable dinner parties with another couple who live nearby, but secretly despise their friends and think that they should be living in Paris, mixing with Left Bank intellectuals. Yates' ability to depict people's pathetic (but entirely understandable) self-delusion and their gradual realisation that they are merely ordinary is done with the wisdom and compassion of a truly great writer.
That afternoon she stood at the window to watch a straggling procession of the New Tonapac Playhouse people setting out on the long walk to the train station. And from this distance they all did look like kids - boys and girls from far and wide with their cheap hand luggage and Army duffel bags, brave entertainers who might travel for years before it occurred to them, or to most of them, that they weren't going anywhere.