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National Book Award Classics


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The following essay appeared in the September, 2003 issue of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of National Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays by Neil Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National Book Award.

John Cheever
The Wapshot Chronicle
National Book Award Winner, 1958

In my research for this month's column, I kept coming across John Leonard's resonant reference to John Cheever (1912-1982) as "the Chekhov of the suburbs." It struck me as neat, convenient literary shorthand. It was predicated upon a received image of suburban life that has become all-too-common nowadays: on the surface, we see manicured lawns, cars in driveways, children (mostly white) running carefree in the streets; and then at the end of the day, fathers walking slowly home from the train station, tie loosened, briefcase in one hand, rolled-up newspaper in the other, to be greeted by a smiling wife and dinner in the oven. But as the lights go down, the darker dimension takes hold, and all the carefully-concealed secrets - alcoholism, adultery, dysfunctionality -- erupt to the surface, and the huge metaphor is complete, revealing raw facts about "the emptiness at the heart of the so-called American dream."

Critics have attributed John Cheever's slow ascent to recognition to the idea that he spent too much time and energy focusing upon upper middle-class, suburban characters; and also to his dedication to the short story form. But let us remember that The Wapshot Chronicle was a novel - his first novel, no less. And in perfect symmetry, his selected Stories won the National Book Award twenty years later.

Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts on May 27, 1912. His father, Frederick Lincoln Cheever, was a shoe salesman. His mother, Mary Liley Cheever, was English by birth. At age fourteen, John enrolled in Thayer Academy in South Braintree, where he failed to distinguish himself academically; his father lost his job and savings the same year, and his mother opened a gift shop and later a dress shop, to help make ends meet. In the spring of his senior year at Thayer, John was thrown out of prep school ("I was quarrelsome, intractable, and a lousy student") and his parents separated thereafter. He wrote a short story based upon his humiliating if liberating experience called "Expelled," and sent it to The New Republic. The editor, renowned critic Malcolm Cowley, immediately published the young man's work, and thus John Cheever's literary career was launched while he was still a teenager.

Cheever went to live with his older brother, Frederick, in Boston, and then moved down to New York City where he rented a tiny apartment, subsisted on bread and buttermilk, and eked out a living writing short stories and screenplay synopses for MGM.

He worked on the New York City guide published by the WPA, married Mary Winternitz, and in 1942 enlisted in the Army. The following year, his first collection of short stories - he would eventually publish more than one hundred of them in The New Yorker - was published, called The Way Some People Live. This book set the thematic tone for the divided life of so many of Cheever's memorable characters, spending their days in the competitive asphalt jungle of corporate New York, and their evenings and weekends in the deceptive calm of pastoral suburbia.

Five novels followed over the next four decades, standing prominently among the landscape of his short fiction. These included the Wapshot epics, as well as Bullet Park, Falconer, and Oh What a Paradise It Seems.

The Wapshot Chronicle follows the family of the same name over several generations of trials and tribulations in the Massachusetts fishing village of St. Botolphs. Perhaps I am going out on a limb here, but I guarantee that after twenty-five pages you will give yourself up to the talents of what I like to call "an old-fashioned writer." The back cover of the new paperback edition from HarperCollins (which has a wonderful Foreword by Rick Moody) makes a praising analogy to the English novelist Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), and I must admit that I was halfway through Trollope's masterpiece The Way We Live Now (1875) when I took up Wapshot for this essay - and so I see the aptness of that point. Aside from both having been the sons of fathers who went bankrupt, and both having had "disjointed" educations, Cheever and Trollope as writers take a healthy, and welcome, lighter view of the mores of bourgeois life.

Unlike Dickens, Trollope does not concern himself too much with layer upon layer of moral agony. Trollope views his characters with affection and humor. He takes an episodic approach to their daily round, cutting from one social venue to another, from rural English country estate to the labyrinthine highways and byways of London, and back again. You get a similar feeling of narrative movement in Cheever. And furthermore, Cheever takes admittedly mixed emotions about the memories of his own childhood and youth, and applies them as a kind of patina over the relationship of the two Wapshot brothers, Moses and Coverly.

Just as James Joyce -- another short story writer and novelist -- might have half-denied he "was" Stephen Dedalus, John Cheever infused himself into Coverly, but it was not a direct translation; otherwise (as Cheever's daughter, Susan, says in an interview) Wapshot would not be a novel. There is a telling moment when Coverly breaks the news to his parents that he has gone off to Boston with his older brother and from there will head to New York "to prove [his] self-reliance…I know there is no finer place in the world than St. Botolphs," he writes them in a note left behind, "and when I have made my mark I am coming back…But now I am old enough to go out in the world and make my fortune." Reading this passage and following Coverly Wapshot's vicissitudes, we know that we are experiencing a bildungsroman squarely in the modern tradition of Kafka, Joyce and Thomas Mann.

N.B.


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