A portable abyss: John Cheever, Bullet Park

John Cheever (1912-82), Bullet Park. First published 1967. Vintage paperback 2010.

This is a startlingly strange book, full of narrative elisions and unsettling shifts, a linguistically pyrotechnic display of insidious intent.

Its subject is that old American existential dilemma, from Hawthorne and Melville to Updike and Stephen King: the paradoxically simultaneous impulse towards the untamed forest of Sabbats, ocean as pratum spirituale, and the ironically deadening pull of the suburbs.

Bullet Park coverBullet Park is a ‘precinct of disinfected acoustics’, where everyone knows the price of everyone else’s property, where men paint their houses obsessively then go out into the garden and shoot themselves, unable to ‘stand it any longer’. These people numb their neuroses with cocktail parties and pills, gossip, mowing the lawn or taking the chainsaw to a diseased elm or soul.

In a typically weird and lyrical outburst early on the narrator imagines ‘some zealous and vengeful adolescent’ who might rail like Lear in the storm against such a deadening place, with its

legion of wife-swapping, Jew-baiting, booze-fighting spiritual bankrupts. Oh, damn them all…Damn their hypocrisy, damn their cant, damn their credit cards, damn their discounting the wilderness of the human spirit, damn their immaculateness, damn their lechery and damn them above all for having leached from life that strength, malodorousness, color and zeal that give it meaning. Howl, howl, howl.

Tony Nailles is such an adolescent, but his resistance takes the form of neurosis: he takes to his bed and, like Oblomov or Bartleby the Scrivener, prefers to stay there. His father, the uxorious Eliot, a chemist who helps make a mouthwash called Spang and hates himself for his bourgeois uselessness, has to drug himself to endure the daily commute by train into the city of New York, for a cold shower

had no calming effect on his image of the 7:46 as a portable abyss.

Part I ends with a mysterious Caribbean swami curing Tony with a mix of magic and prayer. Then it all gets much weirder.

Paul Hammer, who with his bitchy wife Marietta has just moved into Bullet Park at the start of the novel (shown his new home by a realtor named Hazzard), takes over the narrative; his monomaniacal first-person voice gives us his lengthy dysfunctional back-story. It’s hardly surprising he’s so deranged; from his exiled mother, crazy as a badger herself, he picks up the idea of crucifying a denizen of suburban respectability and excellence: the collocational congruence of names and pure chance (hazard) of contiguity provide the perfect candidate: Nailles. Or even better, his angsty teenage son.

The purpose of this symbolic crucifixion is ‘to awaken the world’, Hammer believes, with the certitude of the terminally lost. Nailles represents ‘a good example of a life lived without any genuine emotion or value’, he decides – this from Hammer, a man who falls in love with a woman because of a white thread on her shoulder, and who kills because of a piece of string or a much-coveted yellow room.

Nailles’s excellence is shown by such gestures as dutifully to turn on his windshield wipers, whatever the weather he’s driving through, to convey the ‘nomadic signals’ of his church’s somnolent belief in ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’ In their white-painted house (like all the other Bullet Park houses) the Nailles family ‘seemed to have less dimension than a comic strip.’ It’s the Dick van Dyke show scripted by Mephistopheles: this is hell, nor am I out of it.

I’ve written here before about Cheever’s deftly crafted short stories; this novel in some ways is a loosely linked collection of such units. This weakens the flow a little, but interest is sustained by that barely-contained sense of mayhem in the lawned pacific real estate, and by the dazzling language that often reaches levels of poetic delirium that’s akin to a spell. An example: Tony has a spat with his astrologically obsessed, seriously neurotic French teacher, blessed with the lewdly inappropriate name Miss Hoe:

She lived alone, of course, but we will grant her enough privacy not to pry into the clinical facts of her virginity…As a lonely and defenseless spinster she was prey to the legitimate anxieties of her condition…She had read somewhere that anxiety was a manifestation of sexual guilt and she could see, sensibly, that her aloneness and her virginity would expose her to guilt and repression. However, the burden of guilt must, she felt, be somewise divided between her destiny and the news in the evening paper.

‘Sensibly’ is just so well placed in that wicked profile.

How Nailles is impelled to thwart Hammer’s demented plan to immolate Tony in the chancel of the local church is the nearest this strange novel gets to a regular plot. It works, just about, as a sequence of disturbingly ironic, magical-surreal vignettes of a civilisation whose barbarity and existential vacuity is barely concealed, or tolerated. In one such scene Nailles wakes his wife by blazing away with his shotgun on his lawn in his underpants at a century-old snapper turtle that’s emerged from the local bog:

In this pure and subtle light the undressed man and the prehistoric turtle seemed engaged in some primordial and comical battle.

That battle takes many forms in this extraordinary novel, where one feels it’s turtles all the way down in an infinite regress to nothingness.

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8 thoughts on “A portable abyss: John Cheever, Bullet Park

  1. Simply dazzling writing Simon. I can’t wait to read more of your lapidary prose(love that word) prose, and to read more Cheever! Cheers, back to our exhausting deadline, which, I pray, ends tomorrow and is not extended.

    Have a great weekend.

    Maureen

  2. My goodness, that sounds odd! I thought he just wrote boring stuff about suburban couples arguing (this based on foolishly taking a massive book of his short stories on holiday in the 90s).

    • Liz: yes, it’s much odder than many of the stories (I’m still working through the stories; wrote about some of them here, then got distracted; must get back to them). Mind you, some of the stories are decidedly strange, from ‘The Enormous Radio’ to the famous ‘Swimmer’.

  3. I have a big volume of Cheever’s short stories which I haven’t got round to reading yet, because, each time I mean to pick it up, an unread Yates somehow gets in the way and I love Yates so much… but I’m definitely going to order this, and The Wapshot Scandal along with it. Thank you for yet another beautiful and illuminating review.

    • Izzy: both Yates & Cheever are good short story writers – my recollection is that Yates was slightly less varied or weird. Have you tried Denis Johnson? Much tougher & druggier but excellent. Train Dreams, which I wrote about here, is also good (a novella). Thanks for the endorsement- most kind

  4. I actually put Angels by Denis Johnson on my wishlist very recently. Have you read this one ? Going to check out your review of TD !

    • I haven’t read Angels, but he’s usually pretty consistent (though Tree of Smoke was a bit unwieldy). His new, posthumous collection should be worth a look, too. Might treat myself (despite the big backlog of reading in waiting, and work reading commitments).

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