Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cheever published several books of his hundreds of short stories, and in some ways they are most representative of his work: The Way Some People Live (1943), The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1958), Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961), The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964), and The World of Apples (1973). They are models of sophisticated, “civilized” writing, beautifully styled, witty, observant, and poignant.

His first two novels suggest, in their structural complexity and modernistic language, that Cheever saw stories as one thing and novels another, that the longer works had another task than to stretch out a short story. The Wapshot Chronicle (1957) and its sequel, The Wapshot Scandal (1964), intrigued and stimulated many readers even as the novels were targets in a mounting critical resistance to “difficult” or jaded modern fiction. Bullet Park (1969) closed out the comic trilogy of this Massachusetts family with tighter, more conventional style, and more trenchant moral satire than its two predecessors. Never so attacked in those aesthetic causes as John Hawkes, John Barth, and Thomas Pynchon, Cheever stood in some eyes for the typical writer of The New Yorker short story, with its elitist sensibilities and decadent upper-middle-class moderns.

Falconer (which Malcolm Cowley reports Cheever pronounced as “Faulkner”) is one of Cheever’s most accessible works. Although its subject matter is of the most sordid kind, the novel seems almost like a fable. It is notable, because of the book’s setting, that Cheever lived near and taught writing at Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York. The clarity of style and the utter economy of language help to focus the reader’s attention upon the strictest definition of a man’s life: What matters most? How shall one go on? Ezekiel’s answer seems to be that, from human misery and even crime, one may redeem oneself by sensitivity and generosity. Fratricide, familial betrayal, sexual promiscuity, bitterness, and recrimination, all may be subsumed if the heart is right. The summary seems almost too simple, but that is also typical of fable. Cheever’s last novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982), reiterates the theme of redemption without the bitterness and corruption so visible in Falconer’s world of characters.