John Cheever 1912–1982
American short story writer and novelist.
Cheever's fictional world is suburban New York and New England, and his typical characters are of the upper middle class. This closed, serene social milieu often contrasts sharply with the chaos and despair experienced by his characters. Overall, Cheever is a humanist; he believes in the rejuvenative power of love and treats his protagonists with compassion. Wit and elegance are consistently present in his prose.
Cheever received his first significant critical attention for The Wapshot Chronicle, which won the National Book Award in 1958. The Stories of John Cheever, a collection of all of Cheever's previously published short fiction and some new material, reenforced his reputation as a major American writer. This volume won several major literary awards in 1979, including a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics' Circle Award.
Cheever's last work, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, written before his recent death, is a novella which addresses familiar Cheeveresque themes of redemption and rejuvenation. Although critical reception of this recent book is varied, the consistent quality of the Cheever canon has indisputably placed Cheever among the ranks of America's great storytellers.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 7, 8, 11, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 7-8, rev. ed., Vol. 106, rev. ed. [obituary]; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)
Cheever is placed just before Chekhov, another fine writer of short stories, in the fiction section of your public library, and the tempting criticism of the Wapshot novels is that they sometimes seem to be paste-ups of minimally connected stories. Bullet Park, a novel with a clean plot line, the convergence of hammer and nail, resists this temptation to digress. We are nevertheless ultimately disappointed, for while Cheever's writing retains its brilliance, his plot is not at all convincing, depending as it does upon the motivation of Hammer, a most unsuccessful character. Hammer's madness is apparent only in his plans for an absurd murder. Can it be Cheever's intention to argue that murder involves little aberration in a man's personality, or is there a previously unsuspected limitation to Cheever's imagination? This lack is made far more obvious when Hammer, for a third of the novel, tells his own story. From Poe through Faulkner and Nabokov, American authors have delighted in projecting variant images of the world through the eyes of the child, the idiot, and the lunatic. Yet the world of Hammer is pretty much the same as the world of Cheever in the rest of the novel. Nothing seems to have been gained through that first-person interlude, and a lot has been lost, including our confidence in the motivation of the character most crucial to the plot. No doubt Cheever intends to show that experiences today are fragmentary and that people no longer possess—if they ever did—a unified personality, yet if Hammer has only the vaguest of notions about why he wanted to commit murder, and discusses his actions with both detachment and distaste, we may justifiably ask why we should listen to him at all.
Curiously, the novel is more than half finished before the main plot and the character of Hammer begin to be important, and this first half is the more pleasant part. It is always strange to read a novel that weakens toward the end; we blame ourselves for its deterioration. Highly recommended for those who never finish one book before they start another. (p. 98)
Charles Nicol, "Salvation in the Suburbs," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1969, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 223, No. 5, May, 1969, pp. 96, 98.
Mr. Cheever has...
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done a strange thing in [Bullet Park]. He has taken the plot of Samuel Beckett's Molloy and transposed it to the mortgaged suburbs whose scotch-fuelled denizens he vies with John O'Hara to be the Zola of. Even stranger, he has reached into another Beckett work, the play Endgame, and lifted the conceit whereby one of his characters is named Hammer and another Nailles. Thus supplied with a hamper of borrowed stuff, he proceeds with verve to write what might have been a first-rate novel. In Nailles and his wife we have a rich American family that lives in a limbo of spiritual emptiness without suspecting the slightest deprivation. (p. 549)
Mr. Cheever's account of life in suburbia makes one's soul ache. Here is human energy that once pushed plows and stormed the walls of Jerusalem and lifted Chartres to its pinnacles spent daily in getting up hung over, staggering drugged with tranquilizers to wait for a train to rattle one into Manhattan. There eight hours are given to the writing of advertisements about halitosis and mouthwash. Then the train back, a cocktail party, and drunk to bed. Every step one takes is on matter bought with money borrowed from a bank whose sole business is to collect the largest possible interest on the loan for the longest possible time….
Once Mr. Cheever has told his story of Nailles, he turns to the Hammers (as Beckett, after the full measure of Malloy's misery, brings on the sinister Moran), both of whom have apparently been driven mad by life in America. From the Hammers arises an inexplicable force the aim of which is to crush Nailles. It is here that Mr. Cheever ought to have read his Beckett closer, or not borrowed plots from him in the first place. Beckett's Molloy makes sense, and lives in one's mind ever after. The same device in Mr. Cheever makes no sense at all; in fact, is embarrassingly awkward and aesthetically wrong. Beckett's Moran is a symbol of malevolence; meanness is his genius. Hammer is a man gone off his rocker, no more interesting than any other lunatic. The end of the novel is therefore false and shockingly inept. (p. 550)
Guy Davenport, "Elegant Botches," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1969; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXI, No. 21, June 3, 1969, pp. 549-50.∗
When in 1969 John Cheever turned from the lovable Wapshots to the weird creatures who inhabit Bullet Park, most reviewers attacked or dismissed him. They were, it seems to me, dead wrong. The Wapshot books, though well made, were minor. "Bullet Park," illusive, mysteriously built, was major—in fact, a magnificent work of fiction.
One reason the book has been misunderstood is that it lacks simple message…. Another reason is that Cheever is right about evil: it comes quietly…. Talking of the oldest and darkest evil, Cheever speaks softly, gently, as if casually. Suspense is not something he fails to achieve in "Bullet Park" but something he has avoided. The novel moves as if purposelessly, like its bland-minded, not very likable protagonist, and from time to time gives a nervous start at the blow of a distant axe.
Cheever's subject is chance—but more than that. Chance is a vehicle that carries the book into darker country. The opening lines present a setting—a train station—designed to suggest the whole human condition in this mysterious, chance-riddled universe…. (But: "The setting seems in some way to be at the heart of the matter," says Cheever, sly. Art, like life, may start with chance, but chance shrouds something darker.)…
Cheever reconsiders the idea of chance, remembering psychic and psychological phenomena, the claims of good and bad witches. What emerges is a world where hope does exist (magic is real and can cure or kill), a world in a way even grimmer than Beckett's because here love and sacrifice are realities, like hope, but realities in flux, perpetually threatened, perishing.
The novel says yes-and-no to existentialists, who can account for all but the paragnost. Cheever, in other words, sees the mind in its totality—sees not only the fashionable existential darkness but the light older than consciousness, which gives nothingness definition. Partly for the sake of this wholeness of vision, Cheever in "Bullet Park" abandoned the fact-bound novel of verisimilitude, which is by nature impotent to dramatize the mind's old secrets, and turned to dependence on voice, secret of the willing suspension of disbelief that normally carries the fantasy or tale.
Cheever's voice—compassionate, troubled, humorous—controls the action, repeatedly calling attention to itself in phrases like "at the time of which I'm writing." Where his voice fades out, character voices come in….
The decision [of the stranger Hammer to murder Nailles] is without explicit motivation, based mainly on "the mysterious binding power of nomenclature." Cheever could have explained the whole thing, black magic as psychosis (the magic of names), and would have done so in a Wapshot book. But how do you render a thing so strange? Instead of explaining, he inserts Hammer's journal. With a mad man's objectivity, Hammer sketches the story of his life.
The coldness of tone (even when the scene is comic), the flat description of his enfeebled quest for relationship, his survival by flight into symbolism (yellow rooms, a dream-castle, pieces of string), explains magically what the fact-bound novel would turn to the dry unreality of a case study. The motive for the projected murder is coincidence—a correspondence of names, two pieces of string. We learn that Paul Hammer has murdered before, without knowing it himself, to get a yellow room. But the rendered proof of his demonic nature is his voice, a quiet stovelid on terror and rage.
As in all first-rate novels, the form of "Bullet Park" grows out of its subject. More here than in his earlier writings, Cheever depends on poetic (which is to say, magical) devices—rhythm, imagistic repetition, echo. Instead of conventional plot, an accretion of accidents. Far below consciousness, the best people in Bullet Park are mirror images of the worst: they live by magic, correspondence. (p. 2)
Nailles, a tragicomic fool, is simply lucky. By accidents of his childhood, he is in touch with Nature…. Hammer, by accidents of childhood and bastardy, is cut off from Nature and himself. Nailles's blessing is that he is married to a good woman and has a son, whereas Hammer is married to a bitch and is childless. Nailles's luck means that he's faintly in touch with the higher magic of the universe—the magic of love, creative force—whereas Hammer is in touch only with lower magic, correspondence….
Cheever closes: "Tony went back to school on Monday and Nailles—drugged—went off to work and everything was as wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful as it had been."
There, it may be, is the underlying reason that reviewers were annoyed by "Bullet Park". The novel is bleak, full of danger and offense, like a poisoned apple in the playpen. Good and evil are real, but are effects of mindless chance—or heartless grace. The demonology of Calvin, or Cotton Mather. Disturbing or not, the book towers high above the many recent novels that wail and feed on Sartre. A religious book, affirmation out of ashes. "Bullet Park" is a novel to pore over, move around in, live with. The image repetitions, the stark and subtle correspondences that create the book's ambiguous meaning, its uneasy courage and compassion, sink in and in, like a curative spell. (p. 24)
John Gardner, "Witchcraft in Bullet Park," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission). October 24, 1971, pp. 2, 24.
The fictional landscape of Cheever's art includes the social pretensions and moral implications of modern suburbia, the larger patterns of human experience, such as the loss of innocence and the deep spiritual hunger for a golden simpler past, and the discovery of beautiful moments to celebrate within the contemporary wasteland. These themes and ideas occur again and again in the short stories and novels. The way they are organized and detailed reveals the form in which Cheever's fictional landscape is created. (p. 115)
[Upon a thin] thread of sensibility, thinner certainly than a sturdy and direct narrative or plot line, are hung the seemingly random episodes of the short stories and novels. Such a method may be overextended in a novel and better suited to the length of the short story, but such is Cheever's method.
The emotional center or vision of Cheever's fiction remains somewhat elusive. His light, ironic style can cut both ways. On the one hand, he seems to be a romantic, yearning for the good old days of yesteryear, far from the madding crowds of the aimless, tasteless contemporary world. On the other hand, he seems to realize the essential futility and unreality of such romantic notions and seems determined to find moments of beauty within the chaotic and graceless contemporary world. Cheever conjures up the romantic past, those glimpses of St. Botolphs, for instance, in some of the most beautiful lyric passages in his fiction. At the same time the contemporary world is regarded comically, almost so absurdly and outrageously that it cannot be taken all that seriously. Yet the ironies of the style deflate the nostalgic pretensions of the romantic past and reveal the real spiritual uncertainty and psychic pain of the chaotic present. In either case Cheever's style can both illuminate and avoid the implications of the situations he writes about. He seems to want his style to be both disarming and protective at once. He seems, finally, to be celebrating his own ability to find delight in both the romantic past, however false, and the contemporary present, however chaotic.
It is essentially Cheever's encounter with experience that we remember, not the encounter of any one of his characters…. Cheever is neither concerned with uncovering the complexities within a particular moment of experience nor interested in sounding the depths of an episode. His is more an attempt to translate that immediate experience into the artistic opportunity to display the lyric gracefulness of his style, to focus the reader's attention primarily upon the encounter between the artist and his material. (pp. 116-17)
Such a method basically reveals a comic rather than a tragic encounter, in which the reader and the author are distanced from the painful immediacy of experience and are directed toward the shape or form that the author gives to that experience. The characters perform in a specific social setting, modern suburbia. All their private griefs, sorrows, and joys are enacted in that realm and shaped by it. We can laugh at the exterior situations that engulf these characters, and at the same time we can sympathize with their interior feelings. It is this kind of distanced look—this focusing on outward incident rather than on inward pain—that provides Cheever with his comic angle of vision on the foibles of modern suburban life. It is this essential graceful and comic form of Cheever's style that shapes our lasting impressions of his art.
Cheever's attitudes toward suburbia remain ambivalent throughout. It is no accident that even the names of his suburban sanctuaries contain both good and evil aspects: "Shady Hill," "Proxmire [near the mire] Manor," "Gory Brook," "Bullet Park." Only in Falconer did he succeed in overcoming these ambivalent attitudes by choosing to write about a prison instead of suburbia. He observed accurately the worms in the suburban apple without deciding that the entire apple was, therefore, spoiled. He realized that the dream of suburban stability and comfort, however decent and valorous to the middle-class mind, is yet a dream, unreliable, transitory, and easily shattered. To think otherwise is to accept illusion. To replace a truly moral consciousness with a mere appreciation of comfort and affluence is to replace man's unending spiritual quest for self-knowledge and self-transcendence with a closet full of dead, unilluminating objects. Cheever's darker tales conjure up the strange powers that objects may have over the unenlightened mind. His lyric tales celebrate those moments of beauty and spiritual illumination that can occur only within the sound moral framework of an ordered and disciplined way of life. (pp. 117-18)
Samuel Coale, in his John Cheever (copyright © 1977 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1977, 130 p.
The publication of Falconer, with its shockingly new milieu and its unusually violent language, is only the most dramatic proof that Cheever is not afraid to push off from past accomplishments and to work with previously untried materials. But his whole body of work reveals that he has consistently been willing to grow, to extend the range of his subject matter, and increasingly to complicate his recurring themes. One of his early reviewers worried that the main danger for Cheever might be to find himself trapped within the elegant style of his promising early stories, but Cheever has enlarged and refined that style through four novels and several hundred short stories. No two collections of short stories are the same; some obvious development of theme, tone, or style marks each. Even The Wapshot Scandal, a sequel, goes far beyond the setting and the perspective of The Wapshot Chronicle. Bullet Park was different enough from Cheever's previous work so as to be radically misunderstood when it was published, and Falconer was an even more startling departure from Cheever's earlier subject matter and style.
At the same time, Cheever does have certain recurrent themes which give a sense of coherence to his career, much as the international theme and the conflict between innocence and experience unify the works of Henry James. One of Cheever's most frequently chosen subjects is family relationships, but he is no simple chronicler or analyst. He has too much respect for the mysterious spaces as well as the successful synapses between husbands and wives, parents and children. He also writes of the relationship between brothers, showing it as intimate and loyal in The Wapshot Chronicle, as fratricidal in Falconer, with many gradations in between in other works. Along with this focus on the family, Cheever incorporates the historical and cultural developments of his times into his fiction. The Depression and World War II figure to some degree in his earliest stories; bomb shelters, the space program, and the sexual revolution appear in his later works. The ground where these dual interests in the internal dynamics of the person and the external convulsions of the world meet is in Cheever's attention to the dailiness of American life, the focus that often gets him characterized as a novelist of manners. Generally, however, in the novel form, he deals with the more extreme experiences of human life; it is more often his stories that really work out the relationships between the inner person and outer world, the present and the past, the best that we dream of being and compromises we continually make.
Cheever's career is varied enough that it is possible to see links between him and a number of American writers and movements. It seems to me, however, that beneath the realistic surface of most of his novels and stories, beneath the careful delineation of manners, a representational American milieu, and historical and cultural facts, Cheever is basically a romantic and a moralist. He is a romantic in that his interest finally is in the individual…. And he is a moralist in that despite the comic texture of his works, the toleration for all manner of human foibles, and the general affirmation which most of his works finally reach, he is always aware of right and wrong, better and worse, life-enhancing and life-diminishing qualities both in people and in the world which can thwart the full humanity of his characters. In these qualities he seems most to resemble James and Fitzgerald…. There is also a little echo of Hawthorne in Cheever's work in his New England moral toughness, his wish that people reach their best human potential despite a lack of cooperation by society. It seems to me that Cheever in his own time has no close peer. He is less naively romantic than Salinger, less simply a chronicler of manners than Auchincloss, less egocentric than Mailer, less narrowly focused than Malamud or Roth, less gimmicky than Vonnegut. His combination of attention to the individual and awareness of the facts and the power of society connect him more with classic American authors like Hawthorne, James, and Fitzgerald; and despite his own New England background and East Coast life-style, he has resisted the post-World War II tendency of American writers to divert American fiction toward a narrow exploration of their own individual religious, racial, or geographical roots.
Yet, at the same time that Cheever's ability to generalize his materials is clear, his readers are becoming more aware of the genesis of those materials out of his own life. (pp. 141-43)
The single most remarkable aspect of Cheever's career so far is, I think, the beauty and consistency of his style. It is lyrical without being flowery; it is precise without being coldly analytical…. Cheever's great contribution to contemporary American literature is that when he brings his formidable gifts of observation and language to bear upon life in our time, he doesn't diminish it but instead leaves us with a sense of increased possibility and even, at times, joy. (pp. 144-45)
Lynne Waldeland, in her John Cheever (copyright © 1979 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1979, 160 p.
Of all our major American writers, John Cheever seems to me the most spontaneous. Because that word has been so much abused I'll say that I take it to refer to a talent that appears to be involuntary, that enables Mr. Cheever to see poetic connections where the rest of us would not have, that causes his mind to teem with radical but always concrete images, that keeps his language in a state of excitement.
While Saul Bellow uses a wider frame of reference and John Updike has a firmer control of his effects, John Cheever seethes with literature. He seems drunk with it, as if life itself, as well as the wish to write about it, made him happy. He is perhaps our most sophisticated optimist.
In a typical Cheever story or novel, he sends a worldly man out into the world looking for love, beauty, continuity, style, manners, meaning—all sorts of shining things—and follows this man's determined and sometimes hallucinated efforts to find them….
Unlike most of our literary heroes, Mr. Cheever's are not generally sacrificed to irony. Though they may occasionally fall victim to his enthusiasm, or lose their way among his multitudinous inventions, he rarely gives up on them. He's the sort of man who'll go to any lengths for a friend—or for a character….
He's like a crazy millionaire who lavishes his riches not on charities or causes, but on men and women who catch his eye. His romanticism has the toughness of someone who knows better, and he is lyrical in the way that only those who have begun to think about death dare to be.
In "Oh What a Paradise It Seems," Mr. Cheever's felicities and eccentricities are in full spate. Lemuel Sears, his hero, is "old enough to remember the promise of dirigible travel," old enough to notice "that extraordinary preoccupation with innocence that absorbs people on a beach before the fall of darkness," old enough to marvel in "the pleasure of fleetness" as he ice skates on a frozen pond in the suburban town where his daughter lives.
A widower who still considers female company one of nature's bounties, Sears is struck by a woman in line before him at a bank…. Whatever else they may be, Mr. Cheever's heroes are always lovers. They work at love, seriously, as other men work at their businesses. Love transfigures them with adrenaline or desire and they throw themselves into gestures….
[Of course, a dozen] things are going on in "Oh What a Paradise It Seems." Sears's beloved pond is to be filled in as a site for a war memorial. It is the profit to be made from dumping in the pond that inspires the scheme, and Sears hires a lawyer to fight it. When the woman from the bank abruptly mistreats him, he has a homosexual affair with the elevator operator in her building….
A dog is shot, a man is run down by a car, a woman threatens to poison the food in a supermarket chain. Sears loses his case against the despoilers of the pond when his elegiac letter to the local paper is quoted in court. I'm not sure what happens after all this to the woman from the bank, the elevator operator, or Sears himself, but this, too, is part of Mr. Cheever's spontaneity.
He invents when he wishes and stops where he pleases, as if he were mocking the naïveté and the imaginative timidity of the literal-minded. I can't say that I'm comfortable with the ending of the book, but I gave up some time ago the notion that art was a comfortable affair. I find myself still mulling over "Oh What a Paradise It Seems," still feeling my way through it, and I believe that's what John Cheever intended.
Anatole Broyard, "Books of the Times: 'Oh What a Paradise It Seems'," in The New York Times (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 3, 1982, p. C28.
We have been here before, in Cheever country, and it is fine [in "Oh What a Paradise It Seems"] to return. Ordinary people, who keep seed in the bird-feeding station and who do not see that playing golf and raising flowers are depraved, undergo an inexplicable test of heart. They are attacked in "that sense of sanctuary that is the essence of love." They dared to imagine that pain and suffering were "a principality, lying somewhere beyond the legitimate borders of western Europe," and then the mountains seem to shift in the space of a night and their children are suddenly refugees, right here on Hitching Post Lane.
There are pluses and minuses when a writer repeats himself. Those of us who were dismayed by the heroin addiction, homosexuality and convenient miracles of "Falconer" will be relieved to see him skating again on familiar ice. When Ezekiel ("God strengthens") went to prison for killing his brother, it was as if Chekov—and Cheever is our Chekov—had ducked into a telephone booth and reappeared wearing the cape and leotard of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man. Hadn't we had enough of the fire alarms of modernism?
Cheever goes here to the supermarket instead of prison. A woman tries to push too many items through the express checkout, and an old man objects: "I just can't stand to see someone take advantage of other people's kindness. It's like fascism…. People like you cause wars."
This is perfect Cheever; it is perfect, period.
And graduate students of the master will be thrilled by "netherness" and "portability," which they can add to "sanctuary" and "trespass" on their list of emotions in the "gypsy culture" of the American exurbs that Cheever anthropologizes. He is, of course, the poet of our displacement, our sense of a lost past and a "sacred grove," our feeling that we came from another country and left a better self behind, like unclaimed baggage….
But Cheever's critics will complain once more of his sweet tooth for the lyrical, of too many nights "where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains." Where is politics? Where is history? The ghetto and the camps? Are the displacements and paroxysms of the exurbs just an accident, a mere failure of luck or charm or nerve? Ought not the bourgeoisie to be punished for sins more grievous than "carnal importunacy"? Who can afford a skating rink so long as there is Bangladesh or the Gulag? And so on.
Certainly, "Oh What a Paradise It Seems" is minor art, although many of us will never grow up to achieve it. If Lemuel Sears is more plausible than Ezekiel Farragut, he is less compelling than Asa Bascomb in "The World of Apples." He is not, however, a lemon. He doesn't feel that hearing a Brandenburg Concerto in a shopping mall is ridiculous. He is one of the many Cheevers who refuse to give up on "Valor! Love! Virtue! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!" These Cheevers sometimes try too hard, I agree, and the afflatus can be embarrassing, but shouldn't we, like Moses in "The Death of Justina," admire decency and despise death?
In Cheever's stories, men drown and fall off mountains, 15-year-old boys commit suicide, a wife shoots her husband as he is about to hurdle the living-room couch…. [There] is lighter fluid instead of vinegar in the green salad. In the swimming pool, an undertow; in the liquor closet, skeletons; in the snow, wolves. Why? (p. 25)
Everything is fragile. Chance abides and buffets.
It seems to me that Cheever speaks not so much of failures of luck and charm and nerve as of failures of faith. How to be brave and good? He mobilizes language in the service of decencies and intuitions that are no longer sanctioned at any altar or practiced in any politics. His stories are brilliant prayers on behalf of "the perfumes of life…."
Of course, he wants too much. He wants wisdom and beauty, God and sex. Don't we all? Didn't Chekhov? (p. 26)
John Leonard, "Cheever Country," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 7, 1982, pp. 1. 25-6.
Though Cheever can still turn a phrase with the best of them, Oh What … is by any and every standard a bad book, worthy of notice only because he put his name to it. Clumsily lurching back and forth between postmodern and realistic techniques, it botches both. The plot resolves itself by a devil ex machina; the language is flabby ("nether" does not mean "nondescript"), the snobbishness painful. Better you should read the collected stories. Or, best, The Wapshot Chronicle, which is truer and more touching a quarter century after its publication than this book is now or ever will be.
Geoffrey Stokes, "Books: 'Oh What a Paradise It Seems'" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1982), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVII, No. 11. March 16, 1982, p. 93.
In Oh What a Paradise It Seems, [Cheever's] dualistic world of facts and truths, matter and spirit, is suddenly more starkly lit than ever before—the search for spiritual salvation more insistent, material corruption more pervasive. The renowned pungency, diversity, and color of Cheever's writing seem to have faded somewhat; and the nostalgia, ever-present in his narratives about his wandering race, has lost some of its humane, lyric tone and echoes more remotely now.
The narrator of this eerie novella is looking back, as Cheever's narrators usually do, but this time he's not our contemporary taking us back with him to our common recent past—the last several decades of the century. Instead, the narrative voice emanates from the future, observing the close of this second millennium from a distant, and apparently idyllic, vantage point beyond us. The figure in the foreground of the scene is Lemuel Sears as he skates up and down the black ice of Beasley's Pond late one January afternoon…. Sears is uneasily beginning to face the facts of approaching old age. But, fleet and graceful on the smooth pond surface, he feels his spirit suddenly braced by "a sense of homecoming…." (p. 43)
For all the familiar Cheever soulfulness with which he is endowed, however, Sears is hardly more than a shadow after the mere ten pages it has taken to set him off on his spiritual journey back toward love of nature and woman. As the spare plot proceeds, it's clear the narrator is more interested in surveying a culture and an allegorical landscape than in probing his main character…. Like the water, the land has changed beyond recognition; farms have been paved over by "that highway of merchandising that reaches across the continent," lane upon lane of cars blurring by, row upon row of fried-food places serving up "the food for spiritual vagrants." It was "as if a truly adventurous people had made a wrong turning and stumbled into a gypsy culture"; the country presents "a landscape, a people … who had lost the sense of a harvest." The anthropological imagery abounds, documenting the "barbarity and nomadism" of a contaminated civilization.
In this habitat, Lemuel Sears is an interesting specimen rather than a compelling character. The saga of his rejuvenating efforts to purify a dirty pond and pollute a pretty woman is a schematic spiritual progress, not an absorbing sentimental journey. Cheever's prose throughout is flatter, less highly polished and graceful than in the past. He is aiming, evidently, to create a different fictional fabric, strands of which have appeared in his more recent work; its cut is more contemporary and cool, with less of the often quaintly elegant style of old.
Thus Sears's love affair is farcical fantasy rather than psychologically compelling romance…. Similarly, Sears's ecological mission—ostensibly a traditional suspense story, crude all-American despoilers versus poetic purifiers—turns out to be an occasion for surrealistic social satire and meditations on the state of the planet. Throughout, Cheever's depiction of a contaminated country is successfully alienating, in fact often all too dispiriting. But his protagonist never becomes a soul lit from within by a memory of love, by a yearning for some past bliss of belonging; Sears is not that soft-hearted but stalwart character of classic Cheever fiction, whom we may know all too well now but miss nonetheless. (p. 44)
Ann Hulbert, "Lonely Nomads," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 186, No. 13, March 31. 1982, pp. 42-5.
["Oh What a Paradise It Seems"] is too darting, too gaudy in its deployment of artifice and aside, too disarmingly personal in its voice, to be saddled with the label of novel or novella; it is a parable and a tall tale—both sub-genres squarely within the Judeo-Christian tradition, North American branch. Cheever has lately taken the mantle of that tradition ever more comfortably upon his shoulders, and now unabashedly assumes the accents of a seer…. Ever more boldly the celebrant of the grand poetry of life, Cheever, once a taut and mordant chronicler of urban and suburban disappointments, now speaks in the cranky, granular, impulsive, confessional style of our native wise men and exhorters since Emerson. The pitch of his final page is positively Transcendental:
The thought of stars contributed to the power of his feeling. What moved him was a sense of those worlds around us, our knowledge however imperfect of their nature, our sense of their possessing some grain of our past and of our lives to come. It was that most powerful sense of how singular, in the vastness of creation, is the richness of our opportunity. The sense of that hour was of an exquisite privilege, the great benefice of living here and renewing ourselves with love. What a paradise it seemed!
If such root affirmations ring, in this late age of median strips and polluted ponds, with a certain deliberate and wry gallantry, that, too, is accommodated in the tale—in the burlesque of its consumerism, the ogreish farce of its politics, the chemical pranks of its natural resurrection…. Cheever's instinctive belief in the purity and glory of Creation brings with it an inevitable sensitivity to corruption; like Hawthorne, he is a poet of the poisoned. His American landscape is dotted with tiny atrocities—back-yard charcoal braziers and "stand-up" swimming pools and domestic architecture that "was all happy ending" and in whose sad living rooms people pass one another "a box of crackers that the label promised would stimulate conversation." The tinge of snobbishness in his dismay is redeemed by the generosity with which Cheever feels, like an American of a century and a half ago, the wonder of this land of promises.
He loves nature—light, water, human love. Again and again, the elements are remembered by his paltry suburbanites…. Nature stamps Man at every moment, and litters our lives with clues to the supernatural:
When [Sears] was young, brooks had seemed to speak to him in the tongues of men and angels. Now that he was an old man who spoke five or six languages—all of them poorly—the sound of water seemed to be the language of his nativity, some tongue he had spoken before his birth. Soft and loud, high and low, the sound of water reminded him of eavesdropping in some other room than where the party was.
The party, for now, is here, in this shadow or paradise. Were Cheever, cosmopolitan as he has become, less a New Englander than he is, with the breath of Thoreau and Emily Dickinson in his own lovely quick light phrasing, he might fail to convince us that a real glory shines through his transparent inventions. The gap in "Falconer" between the circumstantial prison and the spiritual adventure that it allegorized certainly took a reader's indulgence to bridge. But in "Oh What a Paradise It Seems" there are no more gaps than between the blades of a spinning pinwheel. All is fabulous from the start; all is fancy, praise, and rue, seamlessly. Janice, that oddly named village, receives postcards from all the territories that Cheever's imagination has been happy in—Italy, Eastern Europe, the St. Botolph's of the Wapshot chronicles, and the Shady Hill and Bullet Park where America's dream of space and plenty and domestic bliss has come to so fragmentary a realization. The paradisiacal elixir has a chalky taste but in this testament survives its contaminants and is served up sparkling. (pp. 189-90, 193)
John Updike, "On Such a Beautiful Green Little Planet" (© 1982 by John Updike), in The New Yorker, Vol. LVIII, No. 7, April 5, 1982, pp. 189-90, 193-97.∗
[Oh What a Paradise It Seems] is what Henry James delighted to call … a nouvelle; and it would almost seem that the old master had Mr. Cheever in his mind's eye when he wrote of "the only compactness that has a charm, the only spareness that has a force, the only simplicity that has a grace—those, in each order, that produce the rich effect." Though the canvas is small in this new novel, it is not miniature work; it is broad, impressionistic, at its best a poetic narrative.
The book's central figure is a man of some years … [who is] shaken by a sense of the fragile beauty of vanishing things. He lives and works in what is clearly New York City, and spends much of his time in what could be the Connecticut suburbs—though really his world is almost limitless because it persistently shades off into vagueness and nondefinition. His actions hint at a parable without ever taking on the symmetry of one; they touch on melodrama, but glancingly. Other characters encountered by the hero are mute, almost inarticulate; with little ado they materialize, and with even less they disappear, as into soft mist.
Lemuel Sears's affair with Renée Herndon occupies a considerable part of the book…. Her standard conversational gambit is, "You don't understand the first thing about women"; and about this woman it's certainly true. Sears doesn't understand her, she makes no effort to explain herself so the reader doesn't understand her either; if Cheever does, he isn't letting on. There's an enormous, charming, unreliable vacancy in and around her.
The surface of the book is also charming and unreliable…. A speed-reader will sail blithely across the novel's glistening surfaces; if he pauses a moment to look under his feet, the thin ice will be starring out beneath him.
Much of the book's action centers on Beasley's Pond, a deep body of water actually used in winter, by Sears and others, for skating….
The tendency of the solid surfaces to tail off into vagueness counterpoints the way people in the story change their minds abruptly and without explanation, the way crucial developments are determined by coincidence….
[It's] spaced out still further by the narrator's occasional erratic interventions, leisurely and free-floating. The sense of psychic distance, inconsequence, open possibility is enhanced by the vaudeville of Cheever's style, his skill at seeming to tell a simple, unpretentious stry absolutely straight, while introducing patterns of sidestep and evasion. Seeming is the theme of the book, apparent giving and real taking away….
The truth is that Cheever's hero, though he masquerades as a technical specialist … is really a poet, with persistent, intuitive feelings for the fresh, the intense, the mortal…. An open man, with a sneaking fondness for picturesque, idiotic theories and the exhilarations of a physical moment, his character invites use of the faithless adjective, "human." [He] travels through worlds of outsize or wrong-shaped people, looking for one of his own sort….
It has been said that satiric exaggeration is impossible in a society that already is a grotesque parody of what it pretends to be; also that paranoia in a society like our own is, on the odds, the safest approach to truth. In combining some of these dark perspectives within the frame of an idyll, Cheever has done more to create spacious and lively harmony than one would have thought possible in a small room. The ease and assurance with which the equilibrium is maintained are secondary pleasures of dealing with a practiced storyteller and chance-taker.
Robert M. Adams. "Chance-Taker," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1982 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 7, April 29, 1982, p. 8.
Few swan-songs from any important writer of fiction can have been as well-tuned as [Oh What a Paradise It Seems]. In these 100 pages, John Cheever … with perfectly pleasurable art provides us with an epitaph to his working life, and the theme that stoked it for 40 years. He once described it as 'the terrible beauty of the world, and the pain of those who reach after it as it disappears'….
The polluting spread of urban greed, and of arid metropolitan attitudes to love and the modes of happiness, was a constant preoccupation of his.
But, lest this should sound portentous and moralising in intent, one must add that Cheever's chief quality in his writing is a distanced irony. He has the sharp eye of a naturalist, and a Jamesian view of manners—the conventional overcoat for surging desires and affections buttoned inside.
This valedictory story has the proportions that he found in his best short stories, but which eluded him in his four longer novels….
[A plot summary of his new book] does distorted justice to Cheever's resonance. First, there is his prose, which is charged like Scott Fitzgerald's, its only flaw a kind of convolution that can jar because the sentences are weighted more than their meaning. Yet it has a sheer pleasure about it that constantly sends one back to reread. It is also aptly digressive, almost Dickensian in its ability to take off into dangerous diversions….
Secondly, the Olympian Cheever doesn't show off his superiority to his characters….
Cheever treats all these people as if he's an observer at a party who doesn't know anyone else there, but is eager to find out. He doesn't invent beyond their capacities, as, say, Nabokov will take off into great flights of fancy, subjecting his creatures to horrors and dilemmas that are exceptional and shocking. Cheever is the chronicler of what Calvin Coolidge called normalcy; it's the ordinary world that his characters can't keep pace with….
His virtues, though they may have been polished to fit the commercial requirements of the magazines which gave him a living, have remained those of a puritanical strain of American writing, going back to Hawthorne and Thoreau.
Robert Ottaway, "Terrible Beauty" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1982; reprinted by permission of Robert Ottaway), in The Listener, Vol. 108, No. 2773, August 12, 1982, p. 24.
Oh What a Paradise It Seems is very much about marvelling at the environment and at our irreversible pollution of it. There is, as with Barth, some structural chicanery, but Cheever is infinitely more subtle. His disarming narrator tells us, 'This is a story to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night'. He describes the battle waged by elderly Lemuel Sears to transform the poisoned lake in his home town into the pure, perfect pond of nostalgic memory….
The rug of the plot, however, is gradually and brilliantly pulled from under our feet. For who is the narrator? The seemingly sympathetic voice who guides us through our little idiocies is apparently speaking with casual, intelligent hindsight from some point in the future never exactly defined. He seems to think of our era in the same sentimental manner as his characters. Surely, he has a kindly eye for the absurd? And looks from a time when corruption has been flushed away? It is only suddenly that one leafs back to an early and only moment when we catch a glimpse of him. He is watching a solitary fisherman—and waiting to assassinate him. This quiet control of tone and structure marks out Cheever as a master of his craft, as satirist or storyteller. Only 97 pages long, this is one of the most accomplished novels I have ever read. (p. 23)
Bill Greenwell, "Goose Corn," in New Statesman (© 1982 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 104, No. 2679, November 23, 1982, pp. 22-3.∗