Introduction

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John Cheever 1912–1982

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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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 377

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,...

(The entire section contains 7527 words.)

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