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 upon our attention.
In the elders, in Honora and Leander Wapshot, we are given a form of moral beauty not based upon deed so much as upon a certain casual charm of manner. This charm is not only valued for itself; It is fundamentally a judgment upon the splintered psyche of the next generation, upon us all, upon the loss of place, clear connection, and personal dimension. How else to look at these characters and give their antics meaning? Even their many failures and absurdities are dressed, as it were, in real clothes. They are meant to be “authentic,” like the old clapboard museum house preserved by the New England towns. As for the present generation: Coverly Wapshot marries a prosey girl and goes to live in a non-town, a literally secret place where missiles are made. He works for a sinister scientist named Dr. Cameron, a man whose nature is a secret too. The comparison with the “realness” of St. Botoloph’s and the articulated place the Wapshots occupied there is clear. Moses Wapshot moves to a suburb called Proxmire Manor, where his wife, Melissa, has a dispiriting affair with the boy who delivers groceries. Maule’s curse is pronounced on poor Moses: God will give him whiskey to drink!
In these novels one has the sense that Cheever is in flight from the manners and belongings of the new middle class. Flee them most of us will, but they are, still, just a footnote. How can anyone think that our despair is contained in the decorative, the purely social mannerism? Fiction that sees modern horror in our manufactures and looks for redemption in the absurdities of funny, old, impossible people is not in despair but in a state of guilt over well-being. To yearn for the sense of “identity” that came from a fixed town and fixed family position is depressing; one cannot, in any case, avoid a sense of “identity.” You can see eternity in a grain of sand, but not in the grain of the wood on the dining room table. In these two novels the strength of romantic fantasy clutches at everything, even the modern “realistic” half. When Moses Wapshot moves to Proxmire Manor we know that we are in a region, the suburbs, Cheever understands as well as any writer in America. But the events there have become as unreal as those in St. Botolph’s. The affair of Melissa and the grocery boy is very much like one of those exotic, fantasy couplings in the plays of Tennessee Williams.
Of all Cheever’s work, the stories collected in The Enormous Radio are the most memorable. Janitors, young couples, call girls, homosexuals, divorced people, miserable children, people moving from one apartment to another—many of the details of New York in the 1940s are preserved with great fidelity and beauty. The style is very pure, as in “A Pot of Gold.” “Ralph was a fair young man with a tireless commercial imagination and an evangelical credence in the romance and sorcery of business success.” This desolate story of the failed young executive has the simplicity and truth of some old American tale. In the suburban stories, mystification begins to fog the surface of things. The very plausibility, typicality of the scene invites it. “It was my bad luck to have to take the collection at early Communion on Sunday, although I was in no condition. I answered the pious looks of my friends with a very crooked smile and then knelt by the lancet-shaped-stained-glass windows that seemed to be made from the butts of vermouth and Burgundy bottles…. I knelt on an imitation-leather hassock…” Objects are beginning to represent the inner spirit. Both the seen and the unseen are full of menace. Rich people are bankrupt, the cocktail party ends in a shooting, the baby sitter drinks as much as the parents, suburban Othellos, businessmen, are crazed by jealousy. Doom, breakdown, fraud, alcoholism—and then something beyond, some further doom, not quite seriously presented, but played with, teased, as in a Charles Addams cartoon.
It is hard to place the stories of John Cheever. His special note is tender-heartedness: at his best he is given to suffering, not to satire, and that gives his suburban and city families their sweet, rather pitiful reality. If he has a master, it is probably F. Scott Fitzgerald. At least he has one disciple: John Updike.
February 6, 1964