John Cheever’s Wapshot Annals

Graham Hough

  • The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever
    Harper and Row, 549 pp, £6.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 06 337007 7
  • Florence Avenue by Elizabeth North
    Gollancz, 158 pp, £4.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 575 02680 4
  • McKay’s Bees by Thomas McMahon
    Constable, 198 pp, £4.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 09 463120 4
  • The Siesta by Patrice Chaplin
    Duckworth, 174 pp, £5.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1459 2

John Cheever’s two celebrated novels, The Wapshot Chronicle and The Wapshot Scandal, are now reissued in one volume. In this form, we can see that the two are really one and the end was always implied in the beginning. We are often told that the American novel is not very deeply rooted in the social world, that in a society so fluid and so quickly changing fiction hardly has time to take stock of the way things actually work and tends to blow up into some kind of surreal fantasy. The Wapshot annals both confirm and contradict this. Some of the characters are fantastic enough, and so are the things that happen to them. In places the words get the bit between their teeth and run off on an autonomous joy-ride. All the same, we are securely situated in a time and a place: the time the first half of the present century, the place St Botolph’s, a small New England town. At the start, St Botolph’s is so securely tied to its past and its ingrained, unexamined heritage as to seem almost incapable of change; at the end, it is so hopelessly adrift as to have no future that it can foresee, and perhaps no future at all.

The book has been rightly praised for its rich inventiveness, fertility of character and incident, for its comic verve and its generosity of feeling. And this makes it sound like a sort of neo-Dickensian blockbuster, well padded out with warm humanity. But it is not like that at all. The Wapshot parents are extremely sharply realised, and for all the loving attention to the detail of their settled, innocent world they are not in the least sentimentalised. Leander Wapshot, a vivid comic creation, achieves no Micawberish transformation into a solid citizen. The parents love their sons, but treat them with no outstanding wisdom or foresight. The boys love the parents and each other, but this does not prevent separations, drifting apart, lives set on different slopes, and all on a downward slope – the downward slope of the whole larger society to which they unwittingly belong.

The novel is so packed with incident, so full of different voices, each individually realised, so rich in comic oddity and extravagance, that it has often been commended for these qualities alone. What has been less noticed is that it is a desperately sad story. Even by the end of the first volume Leander is no longer captain of his little ferry: the SS Topaze sets out no longer across the bay – she is turned into a floating gift-shop. The boys who left St Botolph’s to live their lives and make their fortunes are both trapped in wretched marriages. The scandal of the second volume is that the rock-like and beneficent Aunt Honoria, on whose means the family fortunes are based, turns out never to have paid her taxes, never in her life: so that in old age she faces disgrace and ruin, which she escapes only by killing herself with whisky – just in time. There is a defiant bravura here: but the real tendency of this latter part of the story is in the settled hopeless decline of the two Wapshot sons. Their fates are different, but each is caught up in a segment of American society that seems to offer no escape – Moses in rich suburban futility, Coverley in the dismal cage of a small functionary on the fringe of the atomic-energy business. We get grisly glimpses of moneyed bullying, of the computerised bureaucratic nightmare. The sharpest index of this hopelessness is the misery of the two wives, and their moral collapse. No one seems especially to blame; the characters are involved in a degeneration of human intercourse that is like an epidemic disease, and that no one is able to fight. To be sure, none of them has the makings of a hero, but their failure is treated with forbearance rather than contempt. The presence of an observer has been felt all along: in the Scandal he appears openly as a narrator, and it is his profound disillusionment that the text seems to express. In the closing words he says goodbye to St Botolph’s: ‘I will never come back, and if I do there will be nothing left, there will be nothing left but the headstones to record what has happened; there will really be nothing at all.’

There will really be nothing at all: that seems to be the message of Cheever’s short stories too – indeed of practically all the fiction today, English or American, that surveys the contemporary scene. The variations on this theme are many and ingenious; novelists have become extremely resourceful in exploring all the sad variety of hell, and reviewers have come to take it for granted that this should be their normal field. The problem for the writer is to summon up a proper attitude to this sort of material. John Cheever arrives at a wry stoicism that keeps in touch with its own standards, yet does not lose sympathy with those who have accepted the nothingness, or have never known anything else. Not all are so successful. The English in particular have difficulty in finding a firm standing ground from which to view their disintegrating scene. Elizabeth North’s Florence Avenue takes a group of survivors from the flower-children period. They now have teenage children themselves and have made various half-hearted adjustments to the bourgeois world. Monica, who tells the story in her own grisly idiom, describes herself as a poet. Her husband Joel is one too, and so are several of their friends. They live in Yorkshire. This implausible group drift, bicker, have what they call orgies, and impotently survey the chaos of their children’s lives. If this narrative seemed to aim anywhere we might say that it missed its mark, but the tone is so uncertain that we cannot even pay it that compliment. At first, Monica and her crowd seem merely to be held up to ridicule; then we are asked to take them half seriously; finally, we descend to increasingly grimy farce.

It is a relief to get out into the open air in another century. McKay’s Bees is a strange book, hardly a novel in any ordinary sense. The year is 1855. Gordon McKay in Boston has been inspired to wild enthusiasm by a newly published book about bees, their industry, fertility and the profits to be made from them. With his wife and brother-in-law he sets out to travel up the Mississippi to Kansas, there to found a new settlement entirely devoted to the production of bees. The main thread of the tale is a travel-book, but around this cluster a number of other themes: the more or less eccentric persons met en route, some love-complications, the bees themselves and the details of their nurture, a good deal of natural history, Darwinian speculations and their impact on an enterprising field naturalist. The group soon run into the bloodthirsty rumblings of the approaching Civil War, for Kansas is a border state, fought over by Missouri roughnecks who hate the settlers. It is hard to say whether the manner of narration is as artless as it looks, or whether it is really very artful. Nothing is what Henry James would call ‘treated’: all is simply reported, in a lively one-thing-after-the-other fashion. There are echoes of Frances Trollope, echoes of Huckleberry Finn – probably quite accidental; and the whole is so alive, original and unexpected that without any particular plot, without any element of suspense, the reader is kept in a state of pleased and exhilarating surprise.

Reviews of Patrice Chaplin’s previous books have described them as lurid, comic, blood-curdling and witty. I don’t know that I should want any of these contradictory adjectives to describe The Siesta, and certainly not all of them together, for it is a beautifully consistent nightmare – astonishing and inevitable, like all real nightmares, dense with detail and appallingly precise. Sylvia the heroine wakes up lying in the long grass beside the runway of an airport. She has no possessions, no idea how she got there, and she is covered with blood. A cautious inspection reveals that the blood is not her own. She thinks she is in Spain, and finds that she is indeed on the outskirts of Barcelona. She knows who she is – a juggler and acrobatic dancer, who ought to be in Las Vegas to start a new act. She remembers why she is in Barcelona – a desperate last attempt to meet her Spanish lover, although he is now virtuously married.

She washes off the blood in a puddle and struggles into the town. Past meetings with her Celestino mingle with the dazed horrifying present. She attaches herself to a party of rich, drunk, more or less corrupt English visitors. She is haunted by the blood and is convinced that she has committed a murder and that the police are after her. Her companions are intermittently interested and mildly sympathetic, but they do nothing to help her to the only thing she wants – to get away, or if she stays, to find out what has really happened. There are brief scene-shifts to other characters: her agent in Las Vegas frantically trying to explain why she has not turned up; her husband, jealous and abandoned in London.

This is not a long book, but it is very densely populated. As her memory clears, she recalls patches of her long affair with Celestino: a hard summer, a soft summer, scenes of jealousy and tension when she met him again after his marriage. She becomes half-convinced that she knows where the blood came from: she hates Celestino’s wife so bitterly that she must have murdered her. If she could only get to Angeles, the small town where they met, she could discover the truth. And in the end she does get to Angeles, and does discover the truth. But it is not what she expects, nor what we expect either. But it is inevitable and quite clearly the truth.

The events of this fiercely concentrated tale cover only a few days, but in glimpses and half-hallucinatory fragments it includes most of Sylvia’s life. And although she has lost her memory and there is a mystery at the centre of the narrative, there is nothing cloudy, no facile surrealism: all is done in clear images and vivid, compact and quite ordinary conversations. A study of passion, and a remarkable piece of writing.