John Cheever Cheever, John (Vol. 25) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Charles Nicol

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Guy Davenport

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Cheever has 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.∗

John Gardner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Samuel Coale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lynne Waldeland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Geoffrey Stokes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ann Hulbert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

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Robert M. Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Robert Ottaway

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Bill Greenwell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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