John Cheever celebrated New England in some of the loveliest writing in American fiction.
These descriptions are filled with sensuality but also imbued with spiritual meaning, and one could say that the world evoked in the Wapshot books is in the truest sense a blessed one. Despite everything, Cheever’s New England is still the New World (ageing though it might be), the historical landing place of the pilgrim fathers, a promised land granted by God to the faithful in accordance with His providential designs. It is no coincidence that one of the main characters in the novels is named Moses (ironically, however) and we learn in the opening pages of the Chronicle that the Wapshots’ ancestors came over on the second ship to follow the Mayflower. Though lacking perhaps the lamblike humility of a pious churchgoer – (Cheever was too much the proud artist for that) – there is a very real sense of thanksgiving in his more transcendent passages, an abundance of heartfelt gratitude before the wonder that is Creation.
The tone alters quite drastically when it comes to the denizens of this earthly paradise. Cheever frequently professes admiration for the social model of his time and place and the protestant values it embodies, but his full-blooded temperament evidently suffered from the narrow pieties of the New England mentality, and the love of Rome and Roman-Catholic Italy so lavishly displayed in many of his stories reveals, I think, how trapped he sometimes felt.
I sometimes wonder in fact if he didn’t hate New England as intensely as Flaubert hated Rouen. He certainly missed few opportunities to denounce its pettiness and excoriate its false decencies. The village of St Botolphs, whether real or imaginary, is portrayed as idyllic but, although he certainly wishes it wasn’t, Cheever knew the picture was fake. The Christmassy scenes he paints in the opening scene of The Wapshot Scandal seem cosy at first glance but the Grinch in Cheever is quick to show up. Of the gallery of characters whom we meet in these pages almost all are disgraced and by the chapter’s end the narrator has utterly exposed the smugness and essential heartlessness that lurks behind appearances.
It remains true, however, that a certain cloying quaintness mars some of Cheever’s fiction, even the best of it, and a fair few of his stories, the earlier ones especially, are bland and conventional. He was, it has to be said, a professional writer who wrote mainly for The New Yorker, for a middle-brow readership who sought entertainment and mild intellectual stimulation, and were not willing to change their outlook on the world in any fundamental way. But would he have written differently – taken more risks as an artist – had he not needed to earn a decent living and support his family?
It’s hard to know, but quite possibly not. One senses his unwillingness, (in places,) to let modern realities intrude on his fantasy world, and we know that Cheever himself led a respectable middle-class existence, on the surface at least, and was greatly concerned by what his neighbours thought.
His more ambitious work, by contrast, finds him pushing against both moral and formal boundaries (as his private demons got the better of him). He was never the out-of-touch, suburban squire he pretended to be, but a chronic alcoholic and compulsive adulterer who could not, or would not, renounce his vices. His Journals recount his struggles with unsparing honesty and acute self-loathing, and his more perverse protagonists are obvious projections of his darker self. Can there be any doubt that he, Cheever, is The Housebreaker Of Shady Hill?1
From a literary standpoint, certainly, he became something of a saboteur and broke every rule in the book. I’m thinking especially of John Gardner’s The Art Of Fiction which, three decades after it was first published, is still the Holy Bible of literary correctness, and prescribed reading on creative writing programmes throughout the English-speaking world.
His characters, to start with, are certainly not “well-rounded,” and in creating them Cheever seems to exercise a sort of wilful arbitrariness, as though he were experimenting with the very concept of «character» in fiction. What the reader is offered is a seemingly random assortment of biographical snippets and personal attributes which he must somehow weave into a synthesis of his own. One is reminded of those game books for children in which strips of paper featuring eyes, noses, and mouths, or heads, trunks and lower halves, can be shuffled at random to create different people.
As to their motives, these are far from clear, and the Wapshots signally fail to do things in arcs, or to act out inner conflicts in aesthetically satisfying ways. Nor is the reader led, as Gardner decrees “by successive, seemingly inevitable steps, to a stable outcome», but things, most of the time, tend to just happen. At the start of the Chronicle Moses and Coverley Wapshot, the novel’s two main characters, are disinherited by their formidable Aunt Honora and cast out of their ancestral home into the pitiless world of modern America. From this point onwards they have precious little control of their lives but are constantly confounded in their wishes and thwarted in their search for meaning. Chance encounters make or break them, employers hire, fire or transfer them on a whim, and the women they marry baffle, frustrate, and emasculate them. The novel ends – I forget how – on a warm and positive note, but the brothers themselves had little to do with the outcome.
The book, one might argue, is a reflection of the modern condition, describing an arbitrary, dehumanised world where people get shoved around like canned produce on a production line, and where traditional community values – church values especially – have been fatally eroded, but here I have to swallow the pill and agree, in part at least, with John Gardner. “No fiction,” he claims, “can have real interest if the central character is not an agent (i.e. actor) struggling for his or her own goals, but a victim, subject to the will of others» – or, he might have added, to the whims of his or her creator.
Many of Cheever’s characters in the Wapshot novels fall, it has to be said, into the second category. Not that they lack an inner life. We share their hungers, feel their pain and perplexity, and are happy for their sake when life treats them kindly, but although their dilemmas engage us, and the fictional world they are part of is full of interest and charm, they are not very interesting in and of themselves.
Nor, as I admitted above, does one care much how the story ends. Gardner again: “(A) story can end in only one of two ways. In resolution, when no further event can take place… or in logical exhaustion… More events might follow, perhaps from now till Kingdom Come, but they will all express the same thing – for example the character’s entrapment in empty ritual or some consistently wrong response to the pressures of the environment” (my italics)
Moses and Coverley consistently respond in the ‘wrong’ way (whatever that is) to the pressures of the environment, and entrapment, certainly, is one of Cheever’s favored themes, as he acknowledges in a radio interview from 1977.2
In fact, noting in passing Gardner’s use of the the phrase “till Kingdom Come” (his capitals, not mine), we may well ask to what extent Cheever would have acquiesced in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination? Are the characters in his novels subject entirely to divine will? and is their “supposed exercise of free will illusory” – which, according to Gardner would be “morally repugnant”?
Much might be said of the bear pawings of the unconscious, or the babble of voices that contend within us and were never our own, or the bewitchment, for good or for ill, that is sexual attraction, or the promptings of the creative muse which, be it said in passing, came more often to a sozzled John Cheever than they ever did to a sober John Gardner – but the question of free-will is far too thorny and vexed to discuss in this context.
Not that Cheever’s fiction isn’t fraught with moral choice. True enough, the line between right and wrong is all too clearly drawn, but this rarely deters his characters from crossing it. On the contrary, when his protagonists breach the Christian covenant with God – as breach it they will, time and again, in his fiction, – they do so freely and consciously, at times wilfully, and know full well they will suffer for their sins.
Nor is Cheever “emotionally frigid” (Gardner once more) but his books are filled with love, as Dave Eggers says in his introduction to The Wapshot Scandal, even if it is a diffuse kind of love, like the love of God for his creatures.
What does make Cheever a true humanist, on the other hand, is his and his characters’ tortured but passionate quest for moral, emotional, and sexual freedom. Far beyond the narrow calvinism that informs his outlook, there is something almost pantheistic in his love of our world, and in the sheer possibilities of human experience. Life itself is, literally, without end, and the marvellous can flower in the most unlikely of contexts. To put that another way, adventure is just around the corner, and this makes John Cheever a story-teller in the truest, time-honoured sense.
But the marvellous must co-exist with banality and squallor, since his world, after all, is a fallen world, and the beauty it celebrates is also a harrowing beauty. We love, however, our sinful ways, and that the fruit is forbidden makes it all the more delicious. Much of Cheever’s fiction deals with marital infidelity, and his most voluptuous passages, and those most tainted with sin, are also, paradoxically enough, his most epiphanic. Never, indeed, are the manifold blessings of creation more movingly revealed than when they are squandered or corrupted. A creeping sadness threatens our richest moments, but in the very ripeness of experience – which in Cheever’s world is also the taste of death, and which we would damn ourselves to know – we may also discover the essential innocence of the world, and the miracle of grace:
«Outside I could hear the brook, some night bird, moving leaves, and all the sounds of the night world seemed endearing as if I quite literally loved the night as one loves a woman, loved the stars, the trees, the weeds in the grass, as one can love with the same ardor a woman’s breasts and the applecore she has left in an ashtray.”