Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 782

Bullet Park is John Cheever’s third novel. His long and distinguished writing career was capped by many honors, including two National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (1979), and the Edward McDowell Medal in the Arts (1979). Much of his work, including the first chapter of Bullet Park ,...

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Bullet Park is John Cheever’s third novel. His long and distinguished writing career was capped by many honors, including two National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (1979), and the Edward McDowell Medal in the Arts (1979). Much of his work, including the first chapter of Bullet Park, appeared originally in the magazine The New Yorker. His subject matter centers largely on the suburban types of Bullet Park. His stature as a writer, however, is greater than that of a journalistic social satirist.

Bullet Park proved problematic to early reviewers, who were disappointed that it veered away from the satirical humor with which Cheever had become identified, told a preposterous story without narrative logic, and plunged without warning into absurdist melodrama. However, criticism over time has reclaimed the novel’s reputation. Difficult and complex, Bullet Park is a fine and rewarding novel.

A comparison of its two major figures, Eliot Nailles and Paul Hammer, defines the conflicts that shape this apparently malformed story. The suburbanite Nailles carries his share of psychological baggage. He gets through the day anesthetized with drugs and alcohol. His son, Tony, resents him deeply. His wife, Nellie, seems to have lost her way. His prayers and his opinions are perfunctory and shallow. He is, moreover, an advertising executive for Spang mouthwash. Readers of Cheever know what to think of admen. Nailles’s supposed lack of substance, judged from the article in the dental journal, induces Hammer to select him as his victim. Nailles proves to be more than a stereotype, however, in the way he understands his world. He is deeply committed to his wife and especially to his son. He earns a living in the hostile city to preserve the domicile where his wife and son retreat for protection, and where he returns with gratitude each evening. When the snapping turtle appears on the lawn, Nailles goes out to shoot it, just as primitive man defended his home against the woolly mammoth. Cheever nevertheless uses the expectation of the stereotype of the suburbs to shape his paradox. Nailles is the one who loves; he thereby possesses a generous share of goodness.

Hammer, on the other hand, parodies the defeated person of existential literature. Nellie, in a thematic echo, is reading the works of the French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus in her book club. Mersault, in Camus’s L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946), for example, is so psychologically empty that he shoots an unknown person to demonstrate to himself that he has the will to make a choice. Reading Hammer’s own words in his journal, the reader discovers his moral emptiness in the texture of the prose: “Have you ever waked on a summer morning to realize that this is the day when you will kill a man? . . . Hammer mowed his lawns that day. The imposture was thrilling. Look at Mr. Hammer cutting his grass. What a nice man Mr. Hammer must be.” Some readers will recall the string of political murders of the 1960’s committed by assassins with vague and forlorn motives. Hammer is equally evil, crazed, and alone.

Bullet Park contrasts the moral states of Nailles and Hammer, revealing them in images and in the texture of language. Although flawed and foolish, Nailles celebrates his humanity. He loves Tony with a love that continues to flow although he gets very little in return. He describes the scene in which he almost kills his son in anger on a miniature golf course when Tony declares that he is going to quit school: “I said that even if he wanted to be a poet he had to prepare himself to be a poet. So then I said to him what I’ve never said before. I said: ’I love you, Tony.’”

A third character is also important to the book. The narrator, especially in the early part of the story, provides the commentary and wit that make up the characteristic Cheever voice: “The diocesan bishop had suggested that church-goers turn on their windshield wipers to communicate their faith in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Such humor is brittle and risks silliness (in one of Cheever’s stories, the zoning laws do not allow anyone to die; a body has to be removed to another place before a death certificate can be issued). Here that voice is carefully modulated to serve a purpose within the story. People generally are foolish and limited, and Nailles is only one example. With love and hate such people blunder into good and evil, in one mixture or another. The suburbs prove to be as good a place as any to look for fulfilling love.

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