In a literary period that witnessed the exhaustion of literature, wholesale formal experimentation, a general distrust of language, the death of the novel, and the blurring of the lines separating fiction and play, mainstream art and the avant-garde, John Cheever consistently and eloquently held to the position that the writing of fiction is an intimate, useful, and indeed necessary way of making sense of human life and affirming its worth. Cheever’s ambitious and overtly religious view of fiction not only is unfashionable today but also stands in marked opposition to those critics who pigeonhole, and in this way dismiss, his fiction as social criticism in the conventional realistic mode. Certainly, there is that element of realism in his work that one finds in the fiction of John O’Hara and Anton Chekhov, writers with whom he is often compared. Such a view, however, fails to account for the various nonrealistic components of his work: the mythic resonance of William Faulkner, the comic grotesquerie of Franz Kafka, and, most important, the lyric style that, while reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s finest prose, is nevertheless entirely Cheever’s own, a cachet underscoring his essentially religious sensibility.
Humankind’s inclination toward spiritual light, Cheever has said, “is very nearly botanical.” His characters are modern pilgrims—not the Kierkegaardian “sovereign wayfarers” one finds in the novels of Walker Percy, another contemporary Christian writer, but instead the lonely residents of Cheever’s various cities and suburbs whose search for love, security, and a measure of fulfillment is the secret undercurrent of their otherwise prosaic daily lives. Because the idea of original sin is a given in Cheever’s fiction, his characters are men and women who have fallen from grace. At their worst, they are narcissists and chronic complainers. The best of them, however, persevere and, as a result, attain that redemptive vision that enables them “to celebrate a world that lies around them like a bewildering and stupendous dream.”
This affirmation does not come easily to Cheever’s characters, nor is it rendered sentimentally. Cheever well understands how social fragmentation and separation from the natural world have eroded the individual’s sense of self-worth and debased contemporary life, making humanity’s “perilous moral journey” still more arduous. The outwardly comfortable world in which these characters exist can suddenly, and often for no clearly understandable reason, turn dangerously dark, bringing into sharper focus the emotional and spiritual impoverishment of their lives. What concerns Cheever is not so much the change in their fortunes as the way they respond to that change. Many respond in an extreme, sometimes bizarre manner—Melissa Wapshot, for one. Others attempt to escape into the past; in doing so, they deny the present by imprisoning themselves in what amounts to a regressive fantasy that Cheever carefully distinguishes from nostalgia, which, as he uses it, denotes a pleasurable remembrance of the past, one that is free of regret. Cheever’s heroes are those who embrace “the thrust of life,” taking from the past what is valuable and using it in their present situations. How a character responds to his world determines Cheever’s tone, which ranges from open derision to compassionate irony. Although in his later work Cheever may have been, as Richard Schickel has claimed, less ironic and more forgiving, his finest stories and novels, including Falconer, derive their power from the balance or tension he creates between irony and compassion, comedy and tragedy, light and dark.
The social and moral vision that forms the subject of Cheever’s fiction also affects the structure of his novels. The novel, Cheever said in 1953, is a form better suited to the parochial life of...
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the nineteenth century than to the modern age with its highly mobile population and mass communications; but because critics and readers have continued to view the short story as inferior to the novel, the conscientious writer of short fiction has often been denied the recognition routinely awarded lesser writers who have worked in the longer form. One way out of this dilemma for Cheever was to publish a collection of stories having the unity of a novel:The Housebreaker of Shady Hill. Another was to write novels that had some of the fragmentary quality Cheever found at the heart of the modern age. His four novels are not, therefore, made up of short stories badly spliced together, as some reviewers have maintained; rather, they reflect—in various degrees according to the author’s state of mind at the time of composition—Cheever’s firm belief that wholeness of being is no longer readily apparent; instead, it is something that character, author, and reader must strive to attain. Moreover, Cheever develops his novels on the basis of “intuition, apprehensions, dreams, concepts,” rather than plot, as is entirely consistent with the revelatory nature of his religious vision. Thus, although the story form is appropriate to the depiction of the discontinuity of modern life, only in the novel can that discontinuity be not only identified but also brought under some control or, as happens in Falconer, transcended.
The Wapshot Chronicle
In The Wapshot Chronicle, Cheever’s first novel, the discontinuity of modern life is apparent not only in the structure and the characterization but also in the complex relationship the author sets up between his fictional New England town and the modern world lying beyond its nineteenth century borders. The impulse to create St. Botolphs (loosely based on Quincy) came to Cheever while he stood at the window of a Hollywood hotel, gazing down on “the dangerously barbaric and nomadic world” beneath him. The strength of his novel, however, derives not from a rejection of the present or, as in the work of nineteenth century local colorists such as Sarah Orne Jewett, in a reverent re-creation of a vanished way of life, but from the way Cheever uses each to evaluate the other.
The novel traces the decline of once-prosperous St. Botolphs and the Wapshot clan and the picaresque adventures of the two Wapshot boys—the “ministerial” Coverly and his older and more worldly brother Moses—who go to seek their fortunes in New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. By having the novel begin and end with an annual Fourth of July celebration, Cheever does not so much impose an arbitrary orderliness on his discursivenarrative as affirm the ceremoniousness that, in his view, is necessary to spiritual and emotional well-being. The temporal frame is important for another reason: It implies that the human desire for independence equals the desire for tradition. Each must be accommodated if the individual is to prosper. If the modern world seems chaotic, even inhospitable to Leander Wapshot’s sons, it nevertheless possesses a vitality and expansiveness that, for the most part, St. Botolphs lacks. While the town is to be treasured for its rich tradition and continuity, it is also to be considered a place of confinement. The burden of the novel, then, is to show that with “strength and perseverance” it is possible to “create or build some kind of bridge” between past and present.
Cheever intends this bridge to serve a larger, emblematic purpose in The Wapshot Chronicle, where, as in his other works, it is the distance between self and other, or, more specifically, between man and woman, that must be bridged. Although Cheever has repeatedly warned that fiction is not “cryptoautobiography,” he obviously, if loosely, modeled the Wapshots on his own family and has even admitted that he wrote the novel to make peace with his father’s ghost. Leander Wapshot is the book’s moral center; he has the imaginative power to redeem his fallen world, to affirm what others can only whiningly negate. Lusty and romantic, a lover of nature as well as of women, he transmits to Coverly and Moses, by his example rather than by precept, his vision of wholeness. Fittingly, the novel concludes with his “Advice to my sons,” which Coverly finds tucked into a copy of William Shakespeare: “Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord.”
Despite his affirmative stance, Leander is a diminished hero. Unlike earlier generations of Wapshot men who proved themselves by sailing around the world, Leander’s sailing is limited to ferrying tourists across the bay in his barely seaworthy boat, the Topaze, which his wife Sarah later converts into a floating gift shop, thus further reducing Leander’s self-esteem. At one point, a storm drives the boat onto some rocks, an image that captures perfectly what Leander and many other Cheever characters feel so acutely: “man’s inestimable loneliness.” One of Leander’s friends, for example, is haunted by the knowledge that he will be buried naked and unceremoniously in a potter’s field; another man sings of his “guest room blues,” and a young girl who briefly stays with the Wapshots mistakenly believes that sexual intercourse will end her loneliness. Others, equally desperate, collect antiques or live in castles in a vain attempt to make themselves secure in a bewilderingly changeable world. Leander’s vision and vitality keep him from the despair that afflicts these others; as a result, even his death by drowning seems less an end than an affirmation.
Leander, with his “taste for romance and nonsense,” is quixotic and exuberant; his wife Sarah, with her “air of wronged nobility,” her “habitual reliance on sad conclusions,” and his sister Honora, who substitutes philanthropy for love, are strong-willed and sexless. He affirms life; they deny it. Sarah, the town’s civic leader, and Honora, the keeper of the Wapshot fortune, uncaringly strip Leander of his usefulness and self-worth (just as Cousin Justina, the reincarnation of Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham, aggressively plots to unman Moses). To some extent they are predatory, but even more they are incomplete because they are in need of someone to love. Similarly, Leander is portrayed as a man not without flaws. He is, like many of Cheever’s male characters, impractical and, at times, inattentive to his family; he can also appear childishly petulant, even ridiculous, as in the scene in which he fakes suicide in order to attract attention. More important, he loves and is loved, as the large crowd of mourners at his funeral service attests—much to Honora’s surprise.
Whether his sons will fare any better in their relationships with women is left uncertain in this novel. Both marry—Coverly his “sandwich shop Venus” and Moses the beautiful Melissa Scaddon, who plays Estella to Cousin Justina’s Miss Havisham. Both, after briefly losing their wives, eventually father sons, thus fulfilling the terms of their inheritance as set by Honora. Melissa and Betsey are, however, tainted, or haunted, by their pasts (in Betsey’s case this is only vaguely mentioned). Moreover, most marriages in Cheever’s fiction, as in life, are difficult affairs. In sum, the Wapshot boys may yet be greatly disappointed in their expectations. What is more important is the fact that Moses and, more particularly, Coverly build the necessary bridge between past and present, holding firm to what is best in St. Botolphs (as evidenced in Leander’s journal) while freeing themselves from that confinement that the town, in part, represents. This optimistic view is confirmed by the novel’s lively style. Straight narrative sections alternate with large portions of two Wapshot journals, humorous parodies of biblical language, and frequent direct addresses to the reader. Tragic elements are present but always in muted tones and often undercut with humor. In The Wapshot Chronicle, the comic spirit prevails, as well it should in a novel that twice invokes Shakespeare’s Prospero, the liberator of Ariel and tamer of Caliban.
The Wapshot Scandal
Outwardly, Cheever’s first two novels are quite similar in theme, character, and structure. Like The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal employs a framing device and interweaves three related stories: Honora’s escape to Italy to avoid prosecution for income tax evasion and her return to St. Botolphs, where she promptly starves and drinks herself to death; Coverly and Betsey’s life in yet another bland, middle-class housing development, Talifer; and Moses and Melissa’s difficult existence in the affluent suburb of Proxmire Manor. Although reviewers generally responded less favorably to the second Wapshot book, finding it too discursive, Cheever has pointed out that both novels were carefully thought out in advance and has described the sequel as “an extraordinarily complex book built upon non sequiturs.” Whether it is, as Samuel Coale has argued, Cheever’s finest work, because it carefully balances comic and tragic elements, is open to question. More certain is that a considerably darker mood pervades The Wapshot Scandal. At the time he began writing it, Cheever told an audience that American life had become abrasive and debased, a kind of hell, and during its four-year composition he became severely depressed. In The Wapshot Chronicle the easy-to-answer refrain is “Why did the young want to go away?” but in The Wapshot Scandal the repeated question is Coverly’s Hamlet-like “Oh, Father, Father, Father, why have you come back?”—a query that accurately gauges the extent of Coverly’s and Cheever’s disenchantment with a world that no longer seems either inviting or livable for men or ghosts. In the earlier book, Moses and Coverly had to escape the confinement of St. Botolphs; in the sequel, characters have too completely cut themselves off from the usable traditions, comforting stability, and vital, natural light that the town also represents. As a result, the communal center to which earlier Wapshot men had come back and, analogously, the narrative center to which The Wapshot Chronicle continually returned, are conspicuously absent from The Wapshot Scandal.
In the sequel, St. Botolphs, though by no means idealized, is rendered in less qualified terms, thus more firmly establishing Cheever’s preference for its values and his impatience with the rootlessness and shallowness of the modern age. Honora, for example, is now a far more sympathetic figure endowed with two of Leander’s most attractive qualities: a belief in ceremony and a love of nature. In the guise of an elderly senator, Cheever carefully distinguishes between the sentimentalizing of the past and the modern tendency to dispense with the past altogether. The modern Prometheus, the senator notes, is technologically powerful, but he lacks “the awe, the humility, that primitive man brought to the sacred fire.”
Whereas earlier Wapshot men faced the terrors of the sea, Moses and Coverly face the greater terrors of daily life in the twentieth century: insecurity, boredom, loneliness, loss of usefulness and self-esteem, and the pervasiveness of death. As Cheever shows, the American Dream totters on the brink of nightmare. When one resident of Proxmire Manor suddenly finds her carefree days turn into a series of frozen water pipes, backed-up toilets, exploding furnaces, blown fuses, broken appliances, unopenable packages of bacon, and vacationing repairmen, she turns first to alcohol and promiscuity, then to suicide. The few mourners her husband can convince to attend the funeral are people they had briefly known on various sea cruises who, intuiting her disappointment and recognizing it as their own, burst into tears. Similarly, Melissa Wapshot becomes the Emma Bovary of Proxmire Manor, taking as her lover a delivery boy and eventually fleeing to Italy, where, perversely, she finds some “solace” for her disappointments in the Supra-Marketto Americano in Rome. Moses responds to his wife’s infidelity by becoming a wandering alcoholic, and Betsey finds compensation for the wrongs she claims to have suffered by whittling away her husband’s small store of self-esteem.
Coverly, now twelve years older than at the beginning of The Wapshot Chronicle, serves (as Leander did in the earlier work) as the novel’s moral center. He survives, perhaps even prevails, partly because he chooses to follow the best of the past (Leander’s advice to his sons) and partly because he adapts to his world without being overwhelmed by it. Trained as a computer programmer, he accepts the computer error that transforms him into a public relations man but resists the apocalyptic mood that infects nearly everyone else in the novel. Unlike Melissa, whose brief illness leads her to cultivate “a ruthless greed for pleasure,” Coverly’s narrow escape from a hunter’s arrow prompts him to “make something illustrious of his life.” His computer analysis of John Keats’s poetry leads to the creation of new poetry and the realization of a universal harmony underlying not only the poems but also life itself. His brother Moses, whom he has saved for the moment from debauchery, claims to see through the pasteboard mask of Christmas morning to “the nothingness of things.” Coverly, on the other hand, celebrates the “dazzling” day by romancing his wife and sharing Christmas dinner with his late aunt’s blind guests, “the raw material of human kindness.” Coverly’s vision, as well as St. Botolphs’s brand of decorum as “a guise or mode of hope,” is certainly Cheever’s own. Even so, that vision is tempered insofar as the author also shares Moses’ pessimistic knowledge of decorum’s other side: hypocrisy and despair.
The contrasting visions of Coverly and Moses reappear as Eliot Nailles and Paul Hammer, the main characters of Cheever’s third novel, Bullet Park. Nailles is the book’s comic and decidedly qualified hero. Like Cheever, he has belonged to a volunteer fire department, loves to saw wood with a chainsaw, feels a kinship with the natural world, and has a realistically balanced view of suburban living as being neither morally perfect nor inherently depraved. While both character and author are optimistic, however, the quality of their optimism differentiates them, for Nailles’s is naïve and ludicrously shallow: “Nailles thought of pain and suffering as a principality lying somewhere beyond the legitimate borders of western Europe.” Just as Cheever’s story “The Death of Justina” satirizes a community determined to defeat death by means of zoning regulations, so Bullet Park satirizes Nailles’s myopic optimism, which, like St. Paul’s faith (Cheever quotes 2 Corinthians 11-12), is sorely tried during the course of the novel.
Beneath the appearance of respectability and comfort in Bullet Park, one finds the same unease that afflicts Talifer and Proxmire Manor. There is Mr. Heathcup, who interrupts his annual house painting to kill himself, claiming he could not stand “it” anymore. When Harry Shinglehouse is sucked under a passing express train and killed, only his shoe is found, an ironic memorial to a hollow life. Shaken by this and other reminders of mortality, Nailles turns to drugs. Drug addiction is one of Nailles’s escapes; another is the devising of soothing explanations. When asked about his work—he sells Spang mouthwash—Nailles claims to be a chemist. When his son Tony suddenly becomes melancholy and withdraws, Bartleby-fashion, from the outside world, his father, like the lawyer in Herman Melville’s tale, rationalizes his son’s illness as mononucleosis rather than confront the actual cause: He tried to murder his son when Tony echoed his misgivings about the quality of his life. Neither the father’s drugged optimism nor the expensive services of a doctor, a psychiatrist, and a specialist in somnambulatory phenomena effect Tony’s cure. That is accomplished by the Swami Rutuola, “a spiritual cheer-leader” whose vision is not altogether different from Nailles’s.
The climax of Nailles’s dark night of the soul occurs when he defeats his secret antagonist, Hammer, who, as John Leonard suggests, may represent a part of Nailles’s own personality. Hammer is the illegitimate son of a wealthy socialist (such ironies abound in Cheever’s fiction) and his name-changing secretary. Unloved and rootless, Hammer is haunted by a vaguely defined canard. To escape it he turns to various pursuits: aimless travel, alcohol, fantasizing, psychoanalysis, translating the pessimistic poetry of Eugenio Montale, and locating a room with yellow walls where, he believes, he will finally be able to lead “a useful and illustrious life.” He finds the room, as well as a beautiful wife, but both prove disappointing, and his search for “a useful and illustrious life” continues to elude him. At this point, Hammer adopts the messianic plan formulated by his dissatisfied, expatriate mother: to live quietly in a place like Bullet Park, to single out one of its representative men, and to “crucify him on the door of Christ’s Church.Nothing less than a crucifixion will wake that world!” Hammer fails in this, as in his other attempts, mainly for the same reasons he turned to it. One reason is his loneliness; feeling the need for a confidant, he explains his plan to the swami, who, of course, tells Nailles. The other is his having underestimated the depth of love, even in Bullet Park, where homes are associated not with the people who live in them but with real estate: number of bedrooms, number of baths, and market value.
This “simple” book about a father’s love for his son greatly pleased its author. A number of reviewers, however, were troubled by the ending, which Guy Davenport called “shockingly inept.” In a review that Cheever blames for turning the critical tide against the book, Benjamin DeMott charged that Bullet Park was broken-backed, its “parts tacked together.” In retrospect, none of the charges appear merited. Cheever’s narrative method and “arch”-like form (as he called it) are entirely consistent with his thematic purpose. In part 1, the third-person narration effectively establishes both the author’s sympathy for and distance from his protagonist Nailles, whose confused state of mind is reflected in the confused chronology of this section. Part 2, Hammer’s journal (the third-person narrator disappears after parenthetically remarking “Hammer wrote”), is the first-person monologue of a quietly desperate madman such as one finds in works by Edgar Allan Poe and Nikolai Gogol. The return to third-person narration in part 3 enables Cheever to use as centers of consciousness each of his two main characters. At the end of the novel, Tony is saved and returns to school, Hammer is sent to a hospital for the criminally insane, “and Nailles—drugged—went off to work and everything was as wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful as it had been.” By undercutting Nailles’s triumph without actually dismissing it, Cheever’s ending resists those simplistic affirmations and negations that the rest of Bullet Park has explored.
The prison setting is the most obvious difference between Falconer and Cheever’s previous fiction. The more significant difference, however, is the absence of any qualifying irony in its concluding pages. Never has the author’s and his protagonist’s affirmation been so completely self-assured as in this, Cheever’s finest achievement.
Falconer is a story of metaphoric confinement and escape. The realism here serves a larger purpose than verisimilitude; Cheever sketches the essentials of the religious experience and shows how that experience is reflected in a man’s retreat from the natural world or in his acceptance of a responsible place in it. The relationship between two brothers (as in the Wapshot books) or two brotherlike figures (Bullet Park) is given a violent twist in Falconer, where the main character, a forty-eight-year-old college professor named Ezekiel Farragut, has been convicted of fratricide. Farragut’s murderous act, as well as his addictions to heroin and methadone, imply his retreat into self, a retreat that is not without some justification—a narcissistic wife, a father who wanted his unborn child aborted, a mother who was hardly maternal, a jealous brother, and the violence of war—but self-pity is the sin Cheever has most frequently assailed. Farragut’s task, then, is “to leach self-pity out of his emotional spectrum,” and to do this he must learn inside Falconer prison what he failed to learn outside it: how to love.
Farragut’s first, humble step away from self-love is the affection he has for his cat, Bandit, whose cunning he must adopt if he is to survive his time in prison and those blows that defeat Moses and Melissa Wapshot. More important is Farragut’s relationship with a fellow prisoner, Jody. Neither narcissistic nor regressive, this homosexual affair is plainly shown to further Farragut’s movement away from self and, in that from Jody’s hideout Farragut is given an expansive view of the world he has lost, it also furthers his movement toward that world and “the invisible potency of nature.” Jody teaches the professorial Farragut an important lesson concerning the usefulness of one’s environment and the active role that must be assumed in order to effect one’s own salvation, one’s escape from the metaphoric prison. When Jody escapes from Falconer, the loss of his lover at first leads Farragut back to lonely self-love; directed by another prisoner, the Cuckold, to whose depths of self-pity Farragut could easily descend, Farragut goes to the Valley, a dimly lit lavatory where the prisoners masturbate. Here Farragut has a revelation; he suddenly understands that the target of human sexuality ought not to be an iron trough but “the mysteriousness of the bonded spirit and the flesh.”
His continuing escape from useless fantasizing, from nostalgic re-creation of the past, and from passivity causes him to become more self-assured and more interested in the present moment and how to make use of it in realizing his future. The riot at nearby Amana prison (based on the September, 1971, Attica uprising, during which Cheever was teaching at Sing Sing prison) shows that Farragut is actually freer than his jailers, but it is at this point that Farragut overreaches himself. In his view, the Amana riot signals the salvation of all the dispossessed, and to aid himself in hearing the “word,” that is, the news reports, Farragut begins to build a contraband radio. He hopes to get a crystal from Bumpo, who had earlier said he would gladly give up his diamond to save someone. Bumpo refuses to give up the crystal, his reason obviously being his own selfishness, yet there is something ridiculous in Farragut’s vague plan for sweeping social reform when his own salvation is still in doubt. In the aftermath of his and the rioters’ failures, Farragut briefly slips back into self-regarding passivity, from which he is saved by a dying prisoner. In place of the ineffectual and wholly impersonal charity of his plan to save humankind, Farragut takes upon himself the humbler and more truly charitable task of caring for a fellow human being. For the first time, Farragut, prompted by the dying man’s question, faces up to the enormity of his crime, making clear to the reader, and perhaps to himself, that in murdering his brother he was unconsciously trying to destroy the worst part of his own personality. The demon exorcised, Farragut becomes spiritually free, a creature of the light.
The visible sign of this freedom is his escape from Falconer in Chicken Number Two’s burial box. Borrowing freely from Alexandre Dumas, père’s Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844-1845; The Count of Monte-Cristo, 1846), Cheever treats the escape symbolically as a rebirth and a resurrection. The religious theme is effectively underscored by the novel’s parable-like ending. Farragut meets a man who, although he has been evicted from his apartment because he is “alive and healthy,” remains both cheerful and charitable, offering Farragut a coat, bus fare, and a place to stay. Miracles, it seems, do occur. The step from psychological retreat and spiritual darkness to freedom and light is not difficult to take, Cheever implies; it simply requires commitment and determination. As for the effect of this choice, which is as much Cheever’s as Farragut’s, that is summed up in the novel’s final word: “rejoice.”
Falconer recapitulates all of the major themes of Cheever’s earlier fiction and, at the same time, evidences a number of significant changes in his art. One is the tendency toward greater narrative compression. Another, related to the first, is the inclusion of ancillary narratives, less as somewhat obtrusive sketches and more as integral parts of the main story line. The third—a more overt treatment of the religious theme—appears to have influenced the characterization, style, and structure of Falconer. Although Cheever always considered the novelist one who devotes himself to “enlarging” his peers rather than “diminishing” them, his two middle novels emphasize many of his characters’ worst features. Falconer represents Cheever’s return to the more certain affirmation of The Wapshot Chronicle; moreover, Falconer is Cheever’s most lyrical and least bitingly humorous novel. The religious theme and the harmony it implies may also account for its being the most “novelistic” in structure of the four; this is not to say that Cheever had finally “outgrown” his earlier short-story style and mastered the more demanding form of the novel, for the structure of The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal, and Bullet Park mirrors Cheever’s vision of the 1950’s and the 1960’s. By the time he wrote Falconer, however, that sense of personal and cultural fragmentation no longer dominated his thinking, a change reflected in the relatively tight, more harmonious structure of his most affirmative work.
Oh, What a Paradise It Seems
Oh, What a Paradise It Seems is a slighter but in its own way no less triumphant work. The “bulky novel” that illness forced Cheever to cut short is, though brief, nevertheless remarkably generous in tone and spirit. It is also Cheever’s most topical fiction yet strangely his least realistic—a self-regarding, even self-mocking fabulation, a Walden for the postmodern age, in which the irony falls as gently as the (acid) rain. Set in a future at once familiar (jogging, for example, has become popular) yet remote (highways with lanes in four digits)—a timeless present, as it were—the novel ends as it begins, by pretending to disclaim its own seriousness: “This is just a story to be read at night in an old house on a rainy night.”
Oh, What a Paradise It Seems focuses on the “old but not yet infirm” Lemuel Sears. Twice a widower, Sears is financially well-off (he works for Computer Container Intrusion Systems, maker of “cerbical chips”) and is as spiritually as he is sexually inclined. Sears’s heart “leaps” in two not altogether different directions. One is toward Beasley’s Pond, located near his daughter’s home, where he ice-skates and in this way briefly satisfies his desire for fleetness, grace, pastoral innocence, and connectedness with the transcendental world of Emersonian Nature. When family connections (Mafia) and political corruption despoil the scene, however—transmogrifying pastoral pond into town dump—Beasley’s Pond comes to symbolize for Sears not only imminent ecological disaster but, more important, the “spiritual vagrancy” of a “nomadic society” whose chief characteristics are “netherness” and “portability.”
Sears’s attraction to the pond parallels and in a way is offset by his physical attraction to the beautiful Renee Herndon, whose appetite for food and whose work as a real estate broker suggest that, despite the exoticism of her given name and the mysteriousness of her personal life, she represents everything that the prosaically named Beasley’s, in its pristine state, does not. In his sexual pursuit of Renee, Sears is persistent to the point of clownishness. After numerous initial triumphs, Sears will eventually be rebuffed and come to see the waywardness of this attempt of his to attain what the pond, Sears’s first wife, “the sainted Amelia,” and even Renee in her own strange way symbolize, but not before a comical but nevertheless loving interlude with Eduardo, the elevator operator in Renee’s apartment building, and a perfectly useless session with a psychiatrist named Palmer, “a homosexual spinster.” The small but increasingly prominent part homosexuality plays in each of the novels reflects Cheever’s ambivalence concerning his own bisexuality. Comically dismissed in the early works, it becomes in Falconer and Oh, What a Paradise It Seems viable but, as Cheever would say in a letter to one of his many male lovers, not ultimate.
As in Cheever’s other fictions, the narrative here progresses along parallel fronts. Sears’s dual lives, the sexual and the transcendental, become entwined in and simultaneously exist alongside those of Horace Chisholm, whose commitment to the environment evidences his longing for purity and human as well as spiritual attachment but also causes him to become estranged from his wife and family. Like Sears, he is also quixotic, which is to say both idealistic and absurd. Thanks to a number of those improbable plot complications that abound in Cheever’s fiction, Chisholm, working for Sears to save Beasley’s Pond, finds and returns a baby inadvertently left by the roadside after a family outing to the beach. The parents, the Logans, live next door to the Salazzos; Sammy Salazzo presides over the pond-turned-dump. Chisholm will be welcomed into the Logan family but eventually will be killed by the mob; an angry Betsey Logan will, however, complete his work, stopping the dumping, by threatening to poison the teriyaki sauce in the local Buy Brite supermarkets. (A by-product of her action is that her hated neighbors, the Salazzos, will move away.) Sears, in turn, will utilize the latest technology to restore the pond to its original state, thus redeeming himself as well.
Cheever’s ending is self-consciously “happy”—aware of its own improbability. It is, like the architecture of Hitching Post Lane where the Logans and the Salazzos live, “all happy ending—all greeting card.” Cheever’s satire is more than offset by his compassion, however—his recognition of and sympathy for the waywardness of the continuing human search for both home and wholeness.