Surprise, Surprise

The World of Apples

by John Cheever
Knopf, 174 pp., $5.95

People Will Always Be Kind

by Wilfrid Sheed
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 374 pp., $7.95

Points for a Compass Rose

by Evan S. Connell Jr.
Knopf, 240 pp., $6.95

He glanced at the mountains that had no cheering power—looked up at the meaningless blue sky. Where was the strength of decency? Had it any reality at all? Was the gross bestiality that obsessed him a sovereign truth?

For some two centuries fiction has been telling us that unpleasant surprises may be coming at any moment, that the expectations of the settled life get treacherous treatment from nature and man. Yet the art of personal apocalypse persists. “He” in the passage above is a character of John Cheever’s, a somewhat Frost-like old New England poet driven to goatish pornographic imaginings by a glimpse of copulating lovers in an Italian wood. The story “The World of Apples” seems to me virtually flawless, standing out in an otherwise uneven and rather tired collection, and reminding us that Cheever at his best is a remarkable writer. Asa Bascomb, rich in honors but lacking the Nobel Prize he covets and almost deserves, is living out his life in the orderly quiet of a hill town south of Rome. Appalled and disgusted by his susceptibility to erotic shock, he struggles to believe that the obscene scribblings it drives him to are as “candid and innocent” as what he finds in Petronius and Juvenal, that something “innocent, factual, and merry” is being falsified by anxiety and shame.

Somewhat unconvinced himself, he undertakes a pilgrimage to Monte Giordano, whose church contains an image of an angel renowned for its power to cleanse the human heart. His offering made (in the form of a prayer for Hart Crane and Dylan Thomas, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and other tortured masters), he pauses on his return journey to bathe in a woodland waterfall, remembering a moment in childhood when he observed his father, “an old man, with hair as thick and white as his was now,” “bellowing with joy” back in Vermont.

He could stand the cold for only a minute but when he stepped away from the water he seemed at last to be himself. He went on down to the main road where he was picked up by some mounted police, since Maria had sounded the alarm and the whole province was looking for the maestro. His return to Monte Carbone was triumphant and in the morning he began a long poem on the inalienable dignity of light and air that, while it would not get him the Nobel Prize, would grace the last months of his life.

The balancing is admirable between the sad pomposity of that “inalienable dignity of light and air” and what is genuine and moving in Bascomb’s personal sense of having recovered an identity he can endure, however limited we may see it as being. He hasn’t achieved an old man’s frenzy, a sense of persisting energy, however wild and frightening, that could force his imagination beyond the provincial “pungency, diversity, color and nostalgia” which have won him the affectionate admiration of the world, into the realm of (say …

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