National Book Award winners, part 12: 1958’s The Wapshot Chronicle, by John Cheever.

30 Sep

(recuperating from pneumonia in fits and starts; balancing working on my new manuscript with writing about award winners from the past; finding that old anhedonia creeping into the daily grind)

1.

In 1958, John Cheever won the National Book Award for The Wapshot Chronicle. He deserved to win, it’s a superb novel, and a foundational text on which his reputation rests.

The story follows three generations of the family Wapshot: an old salty sailor Leander; his prodigal son, Moses; his other son, Coverly; and his eccentric, elderly aunt, Honore. It’s a sprawling, lively, lusty tale, written in beautiful, poetic prose. The novel swoops in and out of the four characters lives. Moses has wild peregrinations, living penniless in New York and pursuing insane love affairs. Coverly grapples with his homosexuality, his ambiguous feelings towards his father, while attempting to marry a decent woman. Honore struggles with the swift social changes all around her. And Leander spends much of the novel trying to maintain his dignity through aging, increasing irrelevance.

One of the 20th century's great novels.

One of the 20th century’s great novels.

It might not sound like much, but the way Cheever writes it, this novel contains multitudes, a vastness, a rich zestiness, an epic scope and feel. These four characters traverse an immense emotional terrain, and by the novel’s end you feel elated, giddy, excited to be alive.

And the writing, good God, it’s spectacular. Cheever spent eight years working on Chronicle, and it shows. The sentences are perfect. Here’s a section following Honore as she wanders around town:

 

She eats two frankfurters and a dish of ice cream. “That was delicious,” she tells the counter girl, and gathering her things she starts down the street again toward the bus stop where she notices the sign above the Neptune movie theater: ROSE OF THE WEST. What harm can there be, she thinks, in an old lady going to a movie, but when she buys her ticket and steps into the dark, bad-smelling theater she suffers all the abrasive sensations of someone forces into moral uncleanliness. She does not have the courage of her vices. It is wrong, she knows, to go into a dark place when the world outside shines with light. It is wrong and she is a miserable sinner. She buys a box of popcorn and takes an aisle seat in the last row—a non-committal position that seems to lighten her burden of guilt. She munches her popcorn and watches the movie suspiciously.

And here, Leander writes his memoirs of his early days:

 

Found self, although not yet of legal age, powerfully attracted to opposite sex. Picked up hooker on riverbank. Big hat. Dirty linen. Girlish airs, but not young. What matter. Writer on fool’s errand. Red hair. Green eyes. Talked. “What a pretty sky,” says she. “My how nice the river smells,” says she. Very ladylike. River smells of mudbanks. Bad breath of the sea. Low tide. French kissed. Groin to groin. Put hand in front of dress. Little  boys in bushes giggled. Tomfools. Walked in dusk, hip to hip. “I have a little room on Belmont Street,” she says. No thanks. Took her to railroad embankment. Cinders. Cornflowers. Stars. Big weeds like tropical vegetation. Samoa. S——d her there. Grand and glorious feeling. Forget for an hour all small things. Venalities. Money worries. Ambitions. Felt refreshed, generous towards sainted old mother. Hooker named Beatrice. Met often afterwards.

If I could only read one novel for the rest of my life, I would probably pick Wapshot. It’s that good.

2.

Cheever was famous for his short stories by 1957, and he is a superior craftsman of the short form. He wrote hundreds of them. He won all the top awards, sold boatloads of books and was heralded by critics and peers. He’s been called an American Chekhov.

But I think Cheever is worthy of all these accolades and more. I would list him as one of the great stylists of the 20th century, with a few important caveats.

Here we go:

One, he’s odd. There’s a rattle in his fiction, opposing forces fighting for control, and the battle seems to be taking place within Cheever’s mind. It’s as if his dark self and light self picked fiction to battle for control. The effect can be unsettling. As if Cheever himself were as unhinged as some of his characters.

Two, he’s inconsistent, in a way that I love, but academics often hate. He breaks every rule of writing, his style is difficult to identify and he tosses bizarre stuff into his stories at random times. This makes him fun to read, but hard to critique. And without academic reappraisals, it’s tough as hell for a writer to remain in the American consciousness.

Three, his fans are split; some think he’s a short story writer who dallied with the novel with varying degrees of success, while others feel like he’s a novelist who happened to write killer short stories. (I’m in the second camp.)

Four, his body of work (mostly) deals rich people drinking too much and having affairs. Almost two thousand pages of the stuff, and taken as a whole, it can seem like an enormous WASP pity party. Look at us rich, white people! We can be so mean-spirited and sad!

Five, expanding on his oddness, there’s a tension in his work, basic decency dueling with cruel avaricious lust, and the lust often wins. His humanism and decency often feel outweighed by meanness and despair. It’s what makes reading him fascinating, but also in the aggregate unbearably sad.

 

3.

But, really, what can I say about Cheever that hasn’t already been said? Three years ago I read everything he’s written, save for that last little fable thing[1] that I can’t bring myself to try. He’s a magician with his sentences, tucking in bizarre little things in the middle of his paragraphs. He was a major American artist who slipped into near-anonymity and has now returned. I love him. I rate him higher than Bellow, equal to Roth[2], and probably just a bit below Malamud[3].

Philip Roth called Cheever “an enchanted realist.” This is the best description of his allure I can find. Cheever’s stories are realistic[4], often detailing upper crust new England families. But there are ghosts of despair, loneliness, melancholy and even murder rattling around between the lines. Cheever balances a big-hearted empathy and genuine affection for his characters with a vicious, and often deranged joy at their unraveling.

Cheever—especially after the publication of his journals and then later Blake Bailey’s award-winning biography—is less a novelist and more a brand. He’s read psychoanalytically; readers know of his late-in-life homosexual dalliances, as well as his infamous alcoholism, and read his novels looking for clues. His novels and stories are chock a block full of homosexual encounters amongst “straight” men and epic consumption of liquor. But it’s a classic fallacy in dealing with artists, interpreting the art through the life of the artist. And his work transcends the borders of his life and carries within it an otherworldly vitality. Reading it as his unclaimed autobiography is a miserable way to experience his talent, humanity, weirdness, and skill. But that seems to be how many readers now approach him. ’Tis a pity.

Yes, there probably is whiskey in that coffee, but who cares?

Yes, there probably is whiskey in that coffee, but who cares?

 

4.

Anyway, to the books.

My favorite novel of his is Bullet Park. It’s lean, taut, eerie, complex, erotic and thrilling to read. I would recommend it as a good entry point into Cheever. It’s split into two sections. The first seems like a realistic novel detailing the lives of middle class suburbanites, intriguing and well-written, but middlebrow and safe. The second half follows a neighbor as he wanders through an increasingly nightmarish world of drugs, gay encounters, and weird religious mania, deciding that he has to murder his neighbor’s son. It’s fabulous.

The Wapshot Scandal is a good novel, a continuation of the Wapshot family troubles, but a much simpler and less rewarding read than Chronicle. It’s funnier, more overtly ribald, easier to read and more streamlined—it has none of the Leander reminiscences that make Chronicle so rich and dense—and Cheever does some fascinating things with the characters. But it’s a parenthetical work, a must-read for fans, but not essential reading.

Falconer is a prison novel, about an upper class dude adapting to his new surroundings and taking a gay lover behind bars. It’s a very fine novel—many writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, cite it as their favorite and it’s on a handful of best of the century lists—but not his finest[5]. (I would recommend Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, or Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard, if you want a killer prison novel.) He feels a touch out of his element here.

And the collected short stories—which won the National Book Award in the 1980s and I’ll return to it on another post—is essential to any library. It’s spectacular.

4.

Although Cheever deserves the top award, 1957 was a good year for American fiction. Bernard Malamud’s superb, heart-breaking The Assistant was released. So was Andre Lyttle’s The Velvet Horn (I’ve never read it but it has a sterling reputation). James Agee published A Death in the Family. Jack Keroauc released his manic, zeitgeist-defining On the Road. Vladimir Nabokov published his Pnin, one of his thinner, lesser works[6].

In the bad fiction category, Ayn Rand did her best to ruin the world with Atlas Shrugged (boo, hiss, please go away forever).

Over in jolly old England, the postwar flood of British novelists continued. John Wyndham, Iris Murdoch, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick White (okay he’s Australian), Murial Spark (Scottish?), Nevil Shute, Daphne Du Maurier and Lawrence Durrell all published novels. Something fabulous was going on over there, in the first decade after the end of the war.

I’d like to stay with Cheever for longer, but it’s time to move on.


[1] Oh What a Paradise It Seems. I don’t even like typing the title. Of course, it’s probably good. Malamud’s God’s Grace sounds lame on paper, but is astonishing.

[2] Sacrilege to most, I know.

[3] After Cheever, I went through a Malamud binge, and fell in love all over again.

[4] Sort of.

[5] There’s something cutesy, for lack of a better word, about it. And it’s predictable.

[6] I’ve yet to make it all the way through it, but I’m not crazy about Pale Fire, either.

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