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) Yeats’s Last Poems. But perfection of the life will do, Cheever seems to suggest, if perfection of the work just won’t come, and a graceful, contented end is not a simple defeat.
Cheever’s own art, however, rather like Asa Bascomb’s in its secure management of a limited range of tones and moods, is most impressive at moments of breakthrough, when it finds strange and haunting images of the mad or the marvelous penetrating ordinary experience. On his pilgrimage Bascomb sees a car parked by the road, from which emerge a man, his wife, and their three daughters. The man holds a shotgun, and Bascomb wonders if he is to witness murder or suicide or human sacrifice:
The mother and the three girls were very excited. The father seemed to be enjoying complete sovereignty. They spoke a dialect and Bascomb understood almost nothing they said. The man took the shotgun from its case and put a single shell in the chamber. Then he arranged his wife and three daughters in a line and put their hands over their ears. They were squealing. When this was all arranged he stood with his back to them, aimed his gun at the sky, and fired. The three children applauded and exclaimed over the loudness of the noise and the bravery of their dear father. The father returned the gun to its case, they all got back into the Fiat and drove, Bascomb supposed, back to their apartment in Rome.
Though the incident touches upon Bascomb’s case, in its suggestion of sexual self-assertion, of rebellion against the natural and human order played to a familiar audience within the shelter of accepted laws and conventions, still its effect is mainly one of irrelevance. Outside Cheever’s neat narratives, there is usually more life lurking than he or the reader can quite cope with, and its intrusion into the stories provides an enlivening shock to his best work.
The danger is that a talent for disturbance can lapse into mannerism. Several stories in The World of Apples strain pretty hard for their surprises: a traveler discovers that the usual graffiti in railway-station men’s rooms have been supplanted by dull and mawkish quotations from literature, now that the dirty stuff is sold openly in bookstores; a sketch of a man trying to pick up an indifferent woman on a plane turns out to depict a husband and wife; a story begins “The first time I robbed Tiffany’s, it was raining,” and so on.
Even the better stories dilute the force of this disturbance with smugness or the whimsy of the helpless. In “The Fourth Alarm” a bemused suburbanite comes to New York to see his newly liberated wife perform nude in an arty off-Broadway-sex show. When the time comes for the audience to join the grope, the husband manfully strips but can’t figure out what to do with his wallet and keys. To the taunts of the cast (“put down your lendings”—the misquotation of Lear is apt) he sheepishly gets dressed and stumbles out into a blizzard to catch his train. But “some marvelously practical and obdurate part” of himself perks up at the thought that he has snow tires on his car, and he goes home “singing and jingling the car keys,” an ending which I’m afraid concedes too much.
A new St. Botolph story, “The Jewels of the Cabots,” comes to life when the young narrator takes a girl home from a date and is greeted at the door by a hydrocephalic dwarf, evidence, it turns out, of the lurid secrets inside proper New England households. But after giving a rather frantic account of theft, bastardy, desertion, poisoning, and legal nonfeasance, the narrator can only end by describing his visit, years later, to one of the family’s survivors, who fled to Egypt, turned Moslem, and married the Khedive of Luxor.
Cheever has always liked to keep his people on the move, packing them off from where they don’t belong to new places where they don’t belong either. But the geography begins to seem less a metaphor and more a convenience—people get to Italy or wherever too expeditiously, and those back home are overcluttered with wistful souvenirs of happy days when they were young and alive in Rome. Often Cheever writes as if he wished he were somewhere else, too, and, in his firm and elegant art, he takes easy ways out.
Wilfrid Sheed’s new novel hinges upon two terrible surprises. This seems one too many, and People Will Always Be Kind seems a before-and-after book with a hole in its middle, just where readers would want to look for the connection.
Part One tells of the late adolescence and early manhood of Brian Casey, a bright, athletic, middle-class Irish Catholic New Yorker (the labels proliferate in an idea-ridden book like this), who is stricken with polio in 1945, at the age of sixteen. Refusing at first to expect anything less than complete recovery, he bullies his hard-pressed parents into trying expensive cures that don’t work. Finally, after experimenting with other compensations—bridge, sex, ideas, the stock market, shoplifting—he begins to find his true métier in the self-conscious but instructively dirty politics of campus radicalism as it was in the late Forties.
In Part Two we find Casey, twenty years older, a US senator from New York running for the Democratic presidential nomination as an antiwar candidate. Casey has become a tough, shrewd, arrogant professional who has enlisted an army of enthusiastic young activist followers, whom he finds as amusing as he does the bewildered old pols who think they understand him. We see this new Casey through the eyes of one of the neophytes, Samuel Perkins of Newton, Massachusetts, and Harvard, a fairly likable mixture of pseudoradical prig, smartass, naif, and earnest moral philosopher.
Drawn to Casey by idealism and held there by a need to figure out so complex a man, Perkins serves for a time as speech writer, campaign biographer, and sounding board. Alternately flattered and ridiculed by his boss, shamed by the lessons in practical politics he must learn, startled by the private vices—especially Casey’s taste for hotel whores—inside the public figure, Perkins eventually has to drop out of a world that’s both too subtle for his own sweeping categories of judgment and too indifferent to the requirements of his own young ego.
Poor Perkins hopes to make sense of Casey by finding out what made him that way, and his obvious temptation is to attach the feet of clay to those lifeless legs in the wheel chair. But a man is not simply the product of his secular history, and Sheed makes sure that the evidence doesn’t quite add up. Those who knew him in the past—his quiet, depleted parents, his childhood buddies, his main political rival and victim at Columbia, his plain, dutiful wife—can offer only Brian Casey as he fits into their own lives. He may be a cynical “professional idealist,” an embittered son of a bitch making other people pay for his misery, “a saint juggling politics in front of the Virgin,” but none of these versions excludes the others. He himself refuses to make much of his polio, treating it as no more than the less dramatic woundings others have endured without becoming either devils or saints. But then he’s a politician, such a confirmed kidder that you never quite know what, if anything, he really means.
But as we watch Perkins struggle to reconstruct a plausible whole figure from the pieces of broken stone he has collected, we don’t know what to do with our presumably superior knowledge of the case, what we have learned from reading Part One. There polio is the decisive event in Casey’s young experience. Yet it would be embarrassingly simple-minded to use it to solve the mysteries Perkins can’t fathom, since Sheed seems to mean that polio in fact wasn’t all that decisive, that Brian Casey is more than a case history. Still, if we’re not permitted to use Casey’s illness so, why has it been given such strong and exclusive emphasis?
Probably one should forget Part One while reading Part Two, which may suggest something less than the economy of means one hopes for in a novel. It may be that Sheed’s experience—as a polio victim and a campaigner for Eugene McCarthy in 1968—has led him to write two stories. The first, a compassionate but unsentimental picture of a young mind bewildered by the sudden, inexplicable loss of its anticipated future, strikes me as imperfectly suited to Sheed’s talent as a writer, though not to his intelligent, self-mocking Catholicism. His account of how it feels to gain self-consciousness through a suffering that estranges you from family, friends, community, God, all the modes of love and security most people are permitted to give up or redefine more gradually, is rather too reminiscent of Joyce, who after all did it without giving Stephen Dedalus a crippling disease on top of everything else. Like Stephen’s, the young Brian Casey’s experience has no ending compatible with fictional convention; but where Ulysses proceeds from A Portrait (without in any simple way being predicted by it), the story of the mature Casey seems disjointed.
But Casey II comes off very nicely on his own. Sheed’s treatment of the tantalizing gap between the behavior of public men and our understanding of them capitalizes upon the recent intense interest in practical politics without descending to the melodramatic banalities of popular “political” novels. No doubt the lines have been softened and simplified—Casey has an oddly small staff, and he finds more time for minor acolytes like Perkins than seems altogether credible—but Sheed makes no appeals to vulgar paranoia. There are no lurid conspiracies, no shocking scandals, no patriotic sermons to tie it all together. The hectic, duplicitous, improvisational hubbub of real political business is theater enough for a novelist like Sheed, part farceur and part theologian—like Brian Casey himself. In such a theater the joke is usually on the teller as well as on the listener-victim, as Sam Perkins, who sees that he can’t make Casey sound as bad as he wants him to do, learns from a smart old-timer in the end:
“You know the one mistake I thought Casey was making was hiring young jerks like you. But I was wrong, and he was right, as usual. He’s got every kid in the country on his side this time—and you know how he got them? From practicing on you everyday.” He laughed. “Jesus Christ, supergimp. That’s a good one.”
I couldn’t believe it.
“Where did a clown like you get a smart idea like that?” I snarled.
“He told me. You were sitting in the front seat of the car one day and I said, ‘That’s some staff you got.’ and he said, ‘That’s not a staff, that’s my violin.’ Christ what a politician. He could make DiMaggio think he was really a ball-player at heart.”
Big fat- victim—it was you he was practicing on, not me. I got it right the first time….
In his frustrated discovery of an indeterminacy he can’t make himself accept, Perkins leaves orderly expectations behind, and it is this experience that makes People Will Always Be Kind what is rare these days, a convincing political novel.
Evan S. Connell, Jr., is the author of Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, both of which explored the claustrophobia of modern domestic life. Points for a Compass Rose is a more ambitious book, a meditation on the horrors of public experience in the twentieth century, a record of how present shock drives the mind back into history, only to find little solace there. For Connell mere prose is scarcely up to such a task, and he resorts to what is at least typographically verse, in which high and low styles consort together, sometimes nervously.
The people of Teber eat their
so the carcasses won’t be attacked
and out of the skulls they fashion
recalling life’s joys to their pre-
Maybe they know more than we
The book sounds pretty much like that throughout, as if some crazed, tone-deaf antiquarian—with Sir Thomas Browne, Theophrastus, Sir John Man-deville, and Albertus Magnus much in his mind, perhaps because he is drawing on them—were lecturing to us interminably on the curious beliefs of past and present, worrying all the while lest we miss the “relevance” of (for example) the odd dietary customs in Teber and elsewhere:
There’s a story that the King of
together with his wife and children
were eaten by rats
in the year 830. Do you think it’s
On the island of Patmos to which
he had been exiled
by Domitian, John received the
book of the Apocalypse.
Why did a merciful God command
him to eat its pages?
After you have answered these, go on to the next question.
But the pedantry is deliberate, not to say insistent. Connell’s persona, “sick of old devices,” can only try to convey his disgust about Vietnam and the Nazi death camps through a kind of imitative form, in which some 8,000 lines of flat, repetitious verse create in the conscientious reader something like the numbed stupefaction that human history merits. Probably few readers will be sufficiently conscientious; but, having had no other choice than to read on, I found myself sometimes, grudgingly, moved by the very anger that must have made Connell write such a book.
Certainly a demonstration that “knowledge” is treacherous, that both belief and disbelief are pitfalls for the innocent or complacent, has its pleasures. Even the quaintest of our old, forgotten beliefs—“Nymphomania is caused by yellowish worms / within, generated by the powerful strokes of Negroes / or of domiciled baboons”—aren’t much stranger than the propositions of modern science and our wildest stays against confusion (like the Atlantis myth, which Connell may be a little too interested in) seem pretty reasonable compared to what we read in the papers. As small and large evidence of congenital madness accumulates in the suffering encyclopedist’s mind (“I don’t forget anything,” he remarks), he has only the choice between asking worn questions (“How do we separate fiction from reality?,” “Do human events exceed human understanding?”) and lashing out against culpable men with a rage that brings his style close to true eloquence:
As far as I’m concerned, neither Francis
Cardinal Spellman nor Peter the Hermit
should be permitted to lie unmolested.
I have no hesitation about cursing them
in the language they know best: Et in
verticem ipsius iniquitas ejus descendit!
I curse the old man who waits furiously for death
beside a river in Texas. May his soul rot.
I curse his sycophants’ children, let them struggle.
Faithless in one respect, I say, faithless in all.
To be embarrassed by that, as I was, a little, is to discover how far one has gone in accommodating horror, and that is worth finding out.
But Points for a Compass Rose, however admirable and moving its motives, finally seems wasteful itself in its treatment of the waste of history. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” was a good question when Eliot asked it fifty years ago, and it still is; but I’m afraid that, like other urgent questions, it loses its force when asked too insistently and for too long. Connell’s version of cultural nightmare will perhaps impress those who have grown up not knowing Gerontion and the Pisan Cantos, but those who do know them will find themselves thinking, however unfairly, that they have been here before.
May 17, 1973