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, 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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 782 words.)

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