January 19th, 2011 / 8:12 pm
Author Spotlight

The Pleasures of Cheever

John Cheever, far right on bench, not in California, in front of trees

Some of you might very frequently pick up a book feeling certain that you will like it. This happens to me pretty rarely; usually only when I’ve read the book already, or when it is by Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf. So it was with particular relish when, still feeling the pang of having no more of Middlemarch to read, I opened The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever.

I’d only read Cheever’s stories, which I really love, whether the earlier perhaps more conventional ones or later so-called experiments like “The Swimmer.” Putting aside the question of whether “experimental” is or is not a troublesome descriptor of any art, I don’t think it fits well with Cheever at any stage in his career. One gets the sense with Cheever that he read widely and deeply, probably heavily in Shakespeare and the classics, took what he found useful and then made sentences that were all his own, without giving any thought to fashion and currency.

Sentences like:

We have all parted from simple places by train or boat at season’s end with generations of yellow leaves spilling on the north wind as we spill our seed and the dogs and the children in the back of the car, but it is not a fact that at the moment of separation a tumult of brilliant and precise images–as though we drowned–streams through our heads. We have indeed come back to lighted houses, smelling on the north wind burning applewood, and seen a Polish countess greasing her face in a ski lodge and heard the cry of the horned owl in rut and smelled a dead whale on the south wind that carries also the sweet note of the bell from Antwerp and the dishpan summons of the bell from Altoona but we do not remember all this and more as we board the train.

This isn’t the most representative passage from The Wapshot Chronicle in terms of mood or narrative style, but it is entirely representative of the level of prose. The back cover locates the book as a “family narrative in the tradition of Trollope, Dickens, and Henry James,” mentioning its picaresque quality, but if picaresque is the yardstick, then Cheever out-Dickenses Dickens by a hundred miles. To his credit, Cheever doesn’t tidy things up like Dickens, and the moments of absurdity, and the sprawl of the whole thing, are much more in the spirit of Fielding or even Beckett than James. Then again maybe Trollope is all of those things but I haven’t read him at all.

After I finished Wapshot, I read the Paris Review interview of Cheever. You can read it yourself but I thought I’d share a few gems:

I’m very much concerned with trees . . . with the nativity of trees, and when you find yourself in a place where all the trees are transplanted and have no history, I find it disconcerting….But my principal feeling about Hollywood is suicide. If I could get out of bed and into the shower, I was all right. Since I never paid the bills, I’d reach for the phone and order the most elaborate breakfast I could think of, and then I’d try to make it to the shower before I hanged myself.

I love when people talk about breakfasting or about the ills of California (cf “The Lady is a Tramp”: “hates California / it’s cold and it’s damp”), so for somebody to connect the two so effortlessly is really a treat. Plus, I like to think also that I’m very much concerned with trees.

And then:

I don’t work with plots. I work with intuition, apprehension, dreams, concepts. Characters and events come simultaneously to me. Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction. Of course, one doesn’t want to be boring . . . one needs an element of suspense. But a good narrative is a rudimentary structure, rather like a kidney.

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  1. Kyle Minor

      I enjoyed this post. I’d like to hear more of your good thoughts on Cheever. Besides the stories, my favorite book is Falconer (the prison novel.)

  2. Sean

      Kudos for Cheever posts!

  3. Trey

      I have a big orange book of his stories that I’ve barely looked at though I keep meaning to. the argument in favor of doing so only gets stronger.

  4. Parker Tettleton

      Thank you, Amy.

  5. Neil Griffin

      Falconer is a great book indeed. I recently read his collected journals. It’s the most beautifully depressing life I’ve ever read. Hard to get through, but definitely worth it.

  6. John Minichillo

      Falconer is considered the masterpiece novel. Wapshot seems he’s still finding his footing, a first novel – the way yaddo itself seems worked in as setting, the way it doesn’t quite add up. But Falconer contains so much of himself and it’s honest. Sober for the first time, teaching at Sing Sing, open about his bisexuality, snippets of his relationship with his brother and his being ashamed of his father. And it’s not about the suburbs, it’s satire cuts deeper. After that he wrote that novella, oh what a…and then he was gone.

  7. John Minichillo

      That big orange book won a pullitzer – which almost never goes to story collections.

  8. Scott mcclanahan

      Cool, Amy.

  9. Amy McDaniel

      Thanks, Kyle and everybody.

  10. Amy McDaniel

      Thanks, Kyle and everybody.

  11. Amy McDaniel

      But what a pleasure to watch Cheever find his footing, if that’s what this is. The one Dickens novel that it really does remind me of more is Pickwick, his first, which doesn’t get good for 200 pages but then is maybe the most purely pleasurable of any of them, and which doesn’t quite add up either. But luckily we aren’t looking for math, but art. “Episodic” is almost always used derisively, but I love the episodic. Life is episodic. Life doesn’t add up. Art needn’t mirror life exactly, and Wapshot certainly doesn’t. But it is so lovely when a novel’s form seems discovered, maybe excavated, rather than invented. And it is called a chronicle, which hardly suggests a neat package.

      I haven’t read Falconer yet, and it is so wonderful that it is in front of me. I expect to like it even better, in ways, but I don’t expect it to dim for me the many merits and joys of Wapshot.

  12. Vol. 1 Brooklyn

      […] Amy McDaniel talks about the pleasures of reading Gary Cheever over at HTMLGIANT. […]

  13. John Minichillo

      It’s been a long time since I read Wapshot and I don’t really remember it that well. I never would have thought to compare him to Dickens, but I guess there’s a vein of satire that aligns them.

      I liked Bullet Park a lot, which is a quick read and a weird book. Critics were not very kind about it. The satire kind of guides the choices so readers may feel a heavy hand, but it also makes it a different breed.

  14. herocious


  15. Gian

      Yes. Cheever’s red book is so damn good. One story leaves you high, the next one leaves you down. Then up.

  16. Amy McDaniel

      From Bleak House: “To hear him laugh, and see the broad good-nature of his face then, one might have supposed that he had not a care in the world, or a dispute, or a dislike, but that his whole existence was a summer joke.”

      That’s the connection–the exuberance of the sentence, the thing that makes you want to read whole passages aloud to whoever is sitting nearby. And it’s such a sad sentence, vital, exuberant, but sad.

  17. DaveWeiden

      I’m surprised no one has mentioned the Blake Bailey bio of Cheever, which gives huge insight into his work and process (and it’s a page turner, as well).

  18. Anonymous


  19. Drew

      Over the last year or so, I’ve read more or less all of Cheever (just finished the journals) and he’s so much better than so much that is better spoken of. His line is always so easy to follow and so hard to understand in anything like schematic terms. It just is. I think Wapshot Chronicle is marginally better than Falconer and Bullet Park is almost as good as those two. But the stories and the Journals allow him to flash brightest and on his own terms. Just figured out where exactly he was buried and intend to make the pilgrimage once the snow is off the ground.