John Cheever Essay - Critical Essays

John Cheever American Literature Analysis

“Fiction is not cryptoautobiography,” Cheever warned with the insistence of a man either with a mission or with something to hide. Posthumously published biographical materials make it abundantly clear that Cheever’s fiction follows Cheever’s life rather closely but never deductively. “Fiction,” he claimed, “is our most intimate and acute means of communication, at a profound level, about our deepest apprehensions and intuitions on the meaning of life and death”; it is “our only coherent and consistent, continuous, history of man’s struggle to be illustrious.” For Cheever, then, fiction was much more a spiritual than a biographical or psychoanalytical exercise, closer to hymn and prayer than to either confession or disclosure.

His essentially affirmative vision and lyrical style are not merely and superficially willed; rather, they are earned. His description of fiction as “the bringing together of disparate elements” places as great an emphasis on the apparent randomness of contemporary experience as it does on the elusive wholeness of being for which his characters yearn. “The most useful image I have today,” Cheever noted in 1959, “is of a man in a quagmire, looking into a tear in the sky.” One year later, Cheever would flatly assert that life in the United States in 1960 “is hell.”

This apprehensiveness is every bit as much cultural as personal and could, Cheever felt, be attributed to a “loss of serenity in our lives,” to a “loss of tradition,” that forced him as well as his characters and readers into ceaseless acts of moral (and, for Cheever, aesthetic) improvisation. The decorous surface of his prose stands in marked contrast to the nonlinear development of his plots and his characters’ lives. At its worst, this decorum (evident as well in the veneer of respectability of Cheever’s suburban stories, the mask of a venereal itch that is itself a mask for or symbol of something deeper still) seems little more than a form of what in Bullet Park Cheever, perhaps not so tongue-in-cheek, calls “spiritual cheerleading.”

This spiritual cheerleading may seem especially odd to find in the fiction of a writer whose early work was strongly influenced by that of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway distrusted the very words—honor, love, courage, valor, and so forth—on which Cheever’s lyrical vision came more and more to rely. Cheever’s fiction convinces the reader on the basis not of what it denies but instead of what it affirms by virtue of its emotional effect and cumulative power. It evokes a nearly liturgical dimension that leads the reader to believe, as Cheever did, that the purpose of both writing and living is to enlarge humankind rather than to diminish it.

Because his vision is earned rather than willed, the fiction operates not at the extreme of faith but between the poles which Cheever variously described: expansion and constriction (or confinement), “grossness and aspiration,” a world which “lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream” versus a world grown suddenly incoherent, inhospitable, even “preposterous.” In Cheever’s stories and novels, opposites meet but do not necessarily merge as the narrative teeters precariously between the prosaic and the poetic, the practical and the visionary. Even Cheever’s distinctive narrative voice proves hard to pin down, managing to be at once compassionate yet detached, celebratory yet satirical.

Cheever’s characters often find themselves similarly (ambivalently, even ambiguously) situated—not so much placed as displaced, or what Cheever’s friend Ralph Ellison would call dispossessed. They suffer, often seriocomically, from loneliness and from a loss of self-esteem; often (but by no means always) they live well (if precariously) financially, but they are generally bereft emotionally and spiritually impoverished. The discontinuity of their lives often drives them to an earlier time, to tradition, and to memory, but their nostalgic desire to recover what they have lost—a sense of purpose and security—is often one-sided and therefore mistaken in that they fail to realize that nostalgia is as much “a force of expectation” as it is a longing to recover the past.

At their most successful, the search for spiritual wholeness leads them “to build a bridge” in an effort to connect the discontinuous facts of their lives, including the unruliness of their sexual desires. Asked by John Hersey to explain the “blurted quality” of his prose, Cheever responded by attributing it to “some ungainliness in my spiritual person that I cannot master,” least of all by psychoanalysis, which Cheever, like many of his characters, had tried and which, he believed, places too much emphasis on motivation and not enough on aspiration.

The critical response to Cheever’s work has been uneven and unsure, less because of any difficulty in the fiction than from attempts on the part of reviewers and critics to apply the right kind of rigid formulas that Cheever’s work both invites and resists. For example, closely associated with The New Yorker magazine, Cheever was soon classified and accordingly dismissed as a “New Yorker writer.” Reading him as a realist, critics paid scant attention to the strong element of fabulism in his fiction. Judged a writer of short stories, he had his novels discussed as proof of his failure to make the leap to the “more demanding” form of the novel. Seen as a comic writer, he was judged a literary lightweight, a naïve optimist, an apologist for the suburbs, or alternately a satirist of those same suburbs.

In fact, Cheever’s settings kept changing—city, country, St. Botolphs, suburbs, Italy, prison—but his characters’ predicaments remained essentially the same. At a time of considerable literary experimentation, Cheever found himself either praised or damned as a conservative in terms of both values and style—this despite the fact that his achievement derives in large measure from his having so successfully managed either to transcend or to undermine the very formulas used to pigeonhole his work.

Cheever not only gave new life to the short story and, thanks to the immense success of his retrospective The Stories of John Cheever (1978), opened up the market for other short-fiction writers, he also broke down the line separating story from novel, realism from fabulism, convention from innovation (or what he liked to call “improvisation”) so unobtrusively that his efforts largely went unnoticed as he went about his chosen task of communicating modern people’s deepest apprehensions and aspirations.

The Wapshot Chronicle

First published: 1957

Type of work: Novel

In this family chronicle, the youngest generation of Wapshots encounters the waywardness of love and of contemporary life.

The Wapshot Chronicle, Cheever’s first novel, begins with a Fourth of July celebration in St. Botolphs, “an old river town,” a world of the imagination modeled loosely on Cheever’s birthplace, Quincy, Massachusetts. Mishap—a firecracker exploding underneath the horse pulling a wagonload of the town’s most upright women—is turned to narrative advantage; it is the excuse the novel needs to take the reader on a tour of the area. The pace changes and the continuity dissolves as the novel moves through three progressively shorter parts of seventeen, then ten, and finally five chapters, to end back in St. Botolphs on yet another Fourth of July a few years later.

Against the discontinuity of the intervening narrative, the novel’s frame takes on a special but nevertheless ambiguous significance. It adds an element of ceremony but also of arbitrariness that corresponds to the relation between St. Botolphs and the world outside its borders, where much of the novel takes place. The relation between these worlds and between tradition and independence (itself an American tradition), between a past which both sustains and confines and a present which frees but also dismays and displaces forms the thematic center of a novel that is about the need to bridge the two worlds and all they represent.

Descended (in a double sense) from a long line of New England sea captains, the mythically named Leander Wapshot stands at the novel’s moral center. Lusty, sometimes drunk, but always ceremonious, he is Cheever’s diminished hero, captain of the Topaze, a barely seaworthy tourist ferry owned by his eccentric, sexless sister, Honora. When Leander loses his boat, he loses his usefulness and therefore his self-esteem and thus becomes the tragicomic epitome of humankind’s “inestimable loneliness.” His civic-minded wife, Sarah, like his sister, plays her part in Leander’s temporary fall from grace when she turns the Topaze into a floating gift shop. His sons, Moses and the younger, “ministerial” Coverly, fare no better in their relationships with women in the world beyond St. Botolphs.

Once the brothers leave St. Botolphs (Honora, who controls the family inheritance, demands that Moses leave; Coverly departs because he cannot live at home without his brother), their lives become nomadic and the novel’s plot ever more wayward, serving up several divergent yet oddly parallel and at times intersecting stories rife with chance meetings—a sign on one hand of life’s versatility and romantic possibilities and on the other of its inexplicable randomness.

Moses goes to Washington, gets a government job that is so secret that the narrator cannot discuss it, has an affair with a married woman named Beatrice, gets fired, leaves Washington, goes fishing, comes to the aid of a wealthy man whose gratitude includes hiring Moses, and falls in love with and marries Melissa, the ward of a distant cousin, Justina Wapshot Molesworth Scaddon. Justina is the widow of a five-and-ten-cent store king, caricature of the American nouveau riche, and the novel’s comic version of Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham.

Meanwhile, Coverly has gone to New York, where he does not get a job in the carpet business owned by the husband of yet another wealthy cousin (Coverly fails the days-long psychological testing), works in a department store, goes to night school to become a computer “taper,” and falls in love with and marries his Georgia-born “sandwich shop Venus,” Betsey Macaffery, like Melissa an orphan. (Absent parents, especially fathers, figure prominently in Cheever’s fiction.) Moses’s and Coverly’s marriages are as full of interruptions as Cheever’s narrative. Melissa soon turns aggressively asexual as the couple lives under the vast but confining roof of Justina’s Clear Haven mansion.

Coverly’s marriage begins to deteriorate when Betsey’s efforts to make friends at the planned community of Remsen Park (where Coverly’s work has taken them) all fail. Stylistically and narratively, The Wapshot Chronicle is as fractious as the brothers’ marriages: Straightforward narrative sections alternate with Wapshot journals, lists, letters, phony biographies, Catch-22 logic, and frequent addresses to the reader, including such announcements as “now we come to the unsavory or homosexual part of our tale and any disinterested reader is encouraged to skip.”

The ending of The Wapshot Chronicle proves no less curious than the chapters which precede it. Both couples reunite, and both Moses and Coverly father sons and so fulfill the terms Honora set for establishing trusts in their names, part of which the brothers will use to buy Leander a new boat. Before the boat can be bought, however, or the boys (now men) even return, Leander drowns, but his death becomes the occasion of Cheever’s (and the town’s) celebration of all that Leander represents. At the very end of this novel in which tragedy is undercut by humor and the absurd heightened by pathos, Leander finally gets what neither Sarah nor Honora ever let him have in life—the last word—when quite by accident Coverly finds Leander’s handwritten “Advice to my sons,” which mixes practical advice with liturgical intensity, ending with the words “Trust in the Lord.”

The Wapshot Scandal

First published: 1964

Type of work: Novel

The comic waywardness of The Wapshot Chronicle gives way to the confusions and discontinuities of the contemporary world.

Similarities between The Wapshot Scandal and the work to which it serves as sequel, The Wapshot Chronicle, are readily apparent: the similar cast of characters (though Leander and Sarah are both dead), the use of a framing device (two Christmases at St. Botolphs), and the interweaving of multiple narratives. Honora, still eccentric but now more sympathetic, tries to escape persecution for nonpayment of taxes by traveling to Italy. There she finds herself homesick rather than free and, in the company of an equally lonely Internal Revenue Service agent, returns to St. Botolphs, where she must forfeit the family fortune and soon drinks herself to death (a death that Cheever somehow seems to make funny).

Cheever depicts the lives of Coverly and Betsey in a missile-site housing complex named Talifer and of Moses and Melissa in affluent Proxmire Manor. The differences between the two books, however, are of greater importance than the similarities. In The Wapshot Scandal, the narrative is more discontinuous (so much so that Cheever once described it as “an extraordinarily complex book built upon non sequiturs”). The temporal vagaries of The Wapshot Chronicle here seem more pronounced, resulting in a more mythified realism, a fictive world that is simultaneously now and never. (In this sense it resembles the strangely familiar setting of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which significantly first appeared in The New Yorker in the 1940’s.)

The narrator’s relation to his story has also grown more problematic: It is at once more intimate and more detached. He claims to have personal knowledge of the Wapshots, who, he says, always made him feel like an outsider. Most important, The Wapshot Scandal is a darker and at times blackly humorous novel haunted by death, as the now-vacant Wapshot house is said to be haunted by the ghost of Leander, described here as a man who always looked like a boy but who in his last years “looked like a boy who had seen the Gorgon.” Coverly cannot understand why his father would want to come back, least of all to a decidedly fallen world which seems to promise nothing ahead and offer nothing to which to return.

The modern world has almost entirely displaced the “old river town” of the earlier novel. The potency of this new world is almost entirely destructive, as figured most clearly in Dr. Lemuel Cameron, né Bracciani, director of the Talifer missile site and believer in the inevitability of nuclear war, who is more than willing to dispose of all who do not measure up to his intellectual and physiological standards, including his own son.

With Leander’s death, the moral center of the Wapshot books shifts to Coverly, whose efforts to build a bridge between past and present and to adapt to the rootlessly and ruthlessly modern world without succumbing to it are fraught with difficulties. As his world grows increasingly resistant to his sense of what it should be, and as Betsey, still frustrated in her efforts to make friends with her neighbors, grows ever more distant, Coverly searches for some way to prove himself useful, even illustrious. A computer “taper” misassigned to a public relations department as the result of a computer error, Coverly does succeed in building a bridge of sorts when he runs a computer analysis of John Keats’s poetry. He discovers that in their order of frequency the most commonly used words yield their own poetry—proof, Coverly believes, “that some numerical harmony underlay the composition of the universe.”

Moses is neither so fortunate nor so optimistic. Having given up his study of...

(The entire section is 6630 words.)