Tag Archives: 1950s american fiction

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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National Book Award winners, part 11: 1957’s The Field of Vision, by Wright Morris.

23 Sep

(A bout of pneumonia—who gets pneumonia anymore?—has knocked me into bed. I’m typing this instead of convalescing. Have spent the weekend reading, sleeping, reading, taking short walks, willing myself to recuperate. Did a little novel-writing last night, but mostly stayed away from the computer.)

 

1.

Wright Morris won the 1957 National Book Award for his slim, novel of stories The Field of Vision. He would win again in 1981 with Plains Song. Morris is one of these American authors who published widely, won critical praise, sold well, and then disappeared. ’Tis a pity, for on first read he deserves a re-appraisal.

Field of Vision takes place during a bullfight in Mexico. An odd, extended family is in attendance. The novel alternates between the thoughts, perceptions, and memories of a handful of characters.

First, what it isn’t. Vision is not a novel of Mexico. It is not a novel about bull-fighting, not in the way of The Brave Bulls say. It isn’t really about ugly American tourists, although there’s a touch of that.

No, it’s a novel about Nebraska plains people, their stories, their hardships, their coping mechanisms, their courting rituals, and their suffering.

I didn’t like it at first. I couldn’t follow who was whom. The writing was odd, not bad but not quite strong enough. The characters aren’t delineated in a clear way. The descriptions weren’t particularly vivid.

But something happens midway through and the novel turns smoking hot, diabolical and weird, as each character becomes more and more possessed by their memories, and the images of bull-fighting slaughter before them fade away.

Despite a slow start, a surprisingly fine little novel.

Despite a slow start, a surprisingly fine little novel.

The main character is a clueless rube named McKee. He lives in the past, sees things superficially, doesn’t understand his wife or his children, and has a crazed devotion to a childhood friend named Boyd who doesn’t care for him at all. The bullfight for McKee reminds him of his one moment of violence towards animals, where as a child he kills a hog to please his uncle. The writing of the post-killing slaughter is evocative, stirring stuff:

 

They strung him to this tree, dipped him in the bathtub, shaved him down till he was pink and white all over, then cut off his head and propped it in a bucket with the snout sticking up. Over a fire they built in the yard they cooked down the soft parts, the pork shoulders, and stored the pieces in the fat that drained off into heavy lard pails. The light from the fire lit up the yard, the house with the windows boarded, and the swarm of hungry little Gudgers, every one of them shiny with fat. McKee had eaten no pork, his face was clean, but the smell of the fat was thick in his head, like the drone of flies made when they rose up, like hornets, from the pail of blood. He felt that he too was being cooked down, like parts of the hog. He was taking the cure when the wind blew the wood smoke over him. At his back, when he turned to look, the rimless plain lay under the moon, and the grass the color of a dead sea. The house was an ark, adrift upon it, and here and there, in the hollow of a wave, lights would sparkle as if a handful of stars had dropped. In front of him was the fire, the swarm of Gudgers, and strung up as if lynched was the body of the hog. But not all of him. There was some in the fat, and his head was in pail.

 

Crackerjack writing. And the second half of the book is filled with this sort of poetry, darkened by the failures of adulthood.

McKee’s wife has her own chapters, dealing with her first kiss, when as children McKee’s unruly friend Boyd had stolen one, right in front of everyone. McKee thinks she hates Boyd, but she does not. Boyd has unmoored something inside her, and she can hardly control herself around him. She holds her husband in disdain, his small-mindedness, his childish wonder at the world.

Boyd’s chapters deal with his first successes as a playwright, and then his intentional failures.

There’s more, but I’m not here to ruin plot twists. The entire story takes place during the bullfight, an early formal experiment in the unity of time.

This little book is a haunting thing, quite an eerie little novel, an amalgamation of The Sheltering Sky, Appointment in Samarra, and My Antonia. It’s poetic, visceral, pleasurable to read, yet also challenging and ambiguous. This Morris can write. Must check out his other work.

 

2.

1956 was a strange year for American literature. The bulk of the new novels came from the pulp tradition. Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Albert Bester, Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, and Philip K. Dick all published novels and/or story collections.

In the (almost) mainstream world, James Baldwin released his very fine, evocative Parisian novel, Giovanni’s Room. Saul Bellow put out Seize the Day. Pearl Buck—one of our few Nobel Prize winners, which is just nuts—published Imperial Woman. Irwin Shaw (talk about forgotten; he’s a non-presence now, but was a blockbuster writer in his day) released Lucy Crown.

The rest of the year’s output was dominated by British authors. C.S. Lewis, Kingsley Amis, Mary Renault, Mervyn Peake, P.G Wodehouse, William Golding, Agatha Christie, and others all published novels[1].

Around the world, Naguib Mahfouz published his celebrated Cairo Trilogy; Albert Camus released The Fall; Joao Guimaraes Rosa put out The Devil To Pay in the Backlands; and Romain Gary, Pier Pasolini, Georgette Heyer all released major novels.

Excepting Baldwin, Morris probably deserved to win. Field of Vision is a very fine novel.

 

3.

Eight years into the award’s history and no female writers have won. One African American author (and who could have denied Ralph Ellison’s ambition, scope and power?) won the top award. It would be seventeen years before a female writer would win the top prize. I’m making my way towards her.

 


[1] The post-war British novelists are an immense crowd of varied writers. Something to explore later.

National Book Award winners, part 6: 1952’s From Here To Eternity, by James Jones.

17 Aug

(In which I read all the previous National Book Award winners, so you don’t have to.)

James Jones might be the strangest winner of the prestigious National Book Award. He’s one cut above a hack. He was a popular success, with two very fine movie adaptations out of Hollywood, but (mostly) a critical failure. His characters are for the most part one-note and nasty. He’s sour, unsophisticated and blunt. He’s sexist and racist. Worse, he can’t write. His sentences are murky. His thoughts are hazy. He seems bewildered by basic grammar.

Full disclosure: I couldn’t get through it. I didn’t even get close. Worse, I’ve tried to read it before.

But let me say unequivocally: Eternity is a bad book. It doesn’t belong on the top 100 novels of any century, much less the 20th. It’s a confounding, bizarre anomaly in the history of American letters.

There’s a long tradition in popular fiction for big, broad novels with a large cast of characters. Sometimes these are great; The Naked and the Dead is probably Norman Mailer’s best novel. Often these big novels are boilerplate, forgettable, tolerable only if the reader relaxes his/her standards and gives in to the story. Big, epic novels tend to stay pretty close to a familiar formula: linear, cinematic and chronological, with flashbacks to seminal events in the lives of the characters. Eternity follows the formula. The writing is in the third person. Jones seems less central to the story, more of a guide.

A nifty cover that makes the book look great; it isn't.

A nifty cover that makes the book look great; it isn’t.

And he has an axe to grind. Eternity isn’t about heroes, sacrifice, or valor. It’s about selfishness, boredom, and cruelty with plenty of raunchy sex thrown in for good measure. Jones’s tastelessness and his anger shine through. The hypocrisy of American society rankles Jones on page after page. Here’s an example, where a soldier looks at a photograph of a pinup girl while sitting in his tiny room:

All right, he thought, okay; if that’s the way it is; a savagery of anger in him now at the pictures. They call them “pin-up girls” and think it’s cute how “our boys,” now that they’re drafted, love to hang them in their wall lockers. And then close up all the whorehouses, every place they can, so our young men will not be contaminated.

Here are the men of war at peace. And they are miserable. Jealousy, resentment, and petulance percolate in the chain of command. The main character is a hard-ass named Prew, a stubborn, virile loner. He can bugle, he can pick guitar, he can box, and he can screw. He’s a thinner, less substantial version of that badass, lonesome male hero we seen in so many American novels (and films). Think McMurphy spliced with John McClane, as principled as John Grady Cole and as implacable as Harry Callahan. Like so many of these tough guys, Prew creates most of his own problems. For 850 pages.

A rare instance where the film is better than the book.

A rare instance where the film is better than the book.

I like big books. I like unadorned writing. I like epic stories. I have a place in my heart for the Leon Urises of the world. But I can’t abide bad writing. It’s toxic. It’s exhausting. I despised The Da Vinci Code. I thought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an unreadable mess (although, in all fairness, I finished it). I’m an inveterate snob with peculiar tastes[1]. I would put Jones beneath many of our popular writers now, such as Stephen King or Dan Simmons.

Jones is a sloppy writer, unforgivably so. Here’s an example:

Up until then it had only been himself. Up to then it had been a private wrestle between him and himself. Nobody else much entered into it. After the people came into it he was, of course, a different man. Everything changed and he was no longer the virgin, with the virgin’s right to insist on platonic love.

 

The writing goes on and on like this. Sentences that don’t go anywhere, clunkers in every paragraph, misplaced adverbs, weak descriptions, a distinct lack of any type of strong editing. In a word, it’s a mess. Jones isn’t studied, referenced, or admired. He’s fading into obscurity. So many other writers have tackled the same things with so much more verve, compassion and skill.

Finally, to put Eternity into perspective, it beat out Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea; Bernard Malamud’s The Natural; Steinbeck’s East of Eden; Vonnegut’s Player Piano; and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. The official nominees included Truman Capote, Thomas Mann, J.D. Salinger (for Catcher in the Rye), and William Styron. He doesn’t deserve to be in the same company as any of them. His brief ascent with Eternity—how he was proclaimed a genius and heralded as some new voice in American fiction—remains one of life’s little mysteries.


[1] If you’ve been following this blog at all, you have an idea what’s those are.