The Family Way

The Wapshot Scandal

by John Cheever
Harper & Row, 309 pp., $4.95

John Cheever’s literary career is like one of those graphs of the movements of the middle class after the war. He, like they, is seeking some lonely corner of beauty and truth, some “real” place exempt from the disfigurations he has fled. The compulsion, in Cheever, to move on is perplexing since his most valuable bit of inventory is his knowledge of the slummy asphalt alleys of the middle class. He began in New York City and out of that came the gritty brilliance of the stories in The Way Some People Live (written between 1935-43) and The Enormous Radio (1947-53). These stories are tenderly and painfully urban in feeling and usually in setting. They are truly observed, gently desperate, and a selection from the two volumes would make one of the impressive literary achievements of the period. Then the city seemed to become more than Cheever felt anyone had to endure. He moved on to the shady, bankrupt suburbs of The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1953-1958). That too, at last, seemed compromised beyond hope and he began to write stories with a European setting in Some Places & Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel. His next novel instead, went back, back home, back to the roots, beyond the city, the suburb, to the old New England village, to the study of St. Botolph’s (a sort of Newburyport, Mass.) and its leading family—the Wapshot family. (The names in his early work are the usual ones; they will now, in the novels, become old-fashioned, traditional: Honora and Leander and so on. The name Wapshot is itself a curiosity. The only thing plain about it is that in both syllables it threatens to become obscene unless uttered with the utmost vigilance.)

Both of the Wapshot novels are regional fantasies of a conventional sort. The old town serves as a moral rebuke to the present world; but of course one cannot look very closely at a moral rebuke. The romantic regionalism of the books is not so much a form as a mood, and a mood that will necessarily be more an attitude than an observation. Unavoidable bits of Our-Townism deform the style: “The village had like any other its brutes and its shrews, its thieves and its perverts, but like any other it meant to conceal these facts under a shine of decorum that was not hypocrisy but a guise or mode of hope.” We are asked to take a special interest in the older members of the Wapshot family. They have not done anything notable nor stood for anything remarkable nor had devastating experiences; rather, they are sentimentalized figures of the American middle-class romance. They come, whole, with all their things, their tricks, their iconography, out of that busy little corner of genealogical longing that lies hidden in every ambitious unconscious. They are local, aggressively local. Their history in the town gives them snugness if not happiness. Their harmless eccentricities are the real claim they make …

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