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.

Short post about Cheever’s Christmas story

BBC Radio 4 has a recording of John Cheever’s excellent story ‘Christmas is a Sad Season For the Poor’, read by Martin Freeman – so charming in the Sherlock BBC TV dramas – and available to listen to for almost a month. Highly recommended. Link HERE.

220px-JohncheeverYou might also want to look up my 2014 review of this story HERE. Bittersweet, like Dickens’ more famous seasonal story.

Have read several books recently that I’m hoping to write about here soon: E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Barbara Comyns among others. Once the holiday guests and visits are departed/completed I might find time to compose some posts. In the meantime I hope you’ve had an enjoyable holiday – if you had one – and have a peaceful, fulfilling 2016.

I’m not a big fan of ‘best books of the year’ posts, so won’t be doing one here. But do read through my archive if you’re interested in what I had to say about this year’s reading. I recently bought some bargain bundles from The Book People: Hemingway, Wharton, the Barbara Comyns that I mentioned, Barbara Pym, Edna O’Brien’s country girls trilogy (which my wife is currently enjoying; she doesn’t always like my recommendations!)…So plenty of reading to keep me going. Bulgakov, Franzen’s ‘Purity’ and Pound’s complete Cantos for Christmas, too (not to mention Clarice Lispector’s complete stories still languishing accusingly on the shelves from my birthday wish list). A desert retreat would be good so I could just binge on them all…


John Cheever, ‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’.

In Cheever’s story ‘O City…’, about which I wrote last time, the protagonists are not his usual cocktail party circuit suburbanites, but working class. The story showed his ability to blend light humour with a darker moral purpose: Evarts comes to the big city not just to try to become a successful playwright, but really to make his fortune – without necessarily doing much to merit it. This is a theme found in other Cheever stories. We saw that Evarts’s story was a sort of inverted Country Mouse fable.

This time I’d like to respond to Michael Pucci’s recent post on The Mookse and the Gripes website on Cheever’s story ‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’.  He really nails what the story is doing, and how the themes are conveyed. So not much to add on that score. I’d just like to offer here a few extra thoughts, but would strongly recommend you check out his post: it’s first rate.

As Michael and those who comment on his post point out, this is a story, first published in the Christmas 1949 edition of The New Yorker, that takes Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and other sentimental stories like it (‘Miracle on 34th Street’, perhaps), and subverts it, just as Cheever did with Aesop’s fable in ‘O City…’

There are frequent echoes of the Dickens content and style. This is Dickens:

Mr Fezziwig's ball: 1843 illustration by John Leech. Wikimedia Commons

Mr Fezziwig’s ball: 1843 illustration by John Leech. Wikimedia Commons

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled…etc. (Fezziwig’s ball, Christmas past)

There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts… There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions…There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes…[this goes on for some time] (Christmas present)

And here’s Cheever’s description of Charlie’s haul from his tenants:

There were goose, turkey, chicken, pheasant, grouse, and pigeon. There were trout and salmon, creamed scallops and oysters, lobster, crab meat, whitebait and clams. There were plum puddings, mince pies…etc.

The stylistic similarity is clear; so is the intent. When it comes to the booze Charlie is plied with, there are ‘Martinis, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds’…etc.

It’s a cornucopia of food, drink and gifts. Unlike Scrooge, however, Charlie is the recipient of this anxious generosity; he’s given his wealthy tenants a sob-story and they’ve salved their consciences by showering him with gifts.

The plot and circumstantial detail are carefully presented in Michael’s post, so I won’t repeat them here. I’ll look instead mostly at style.

The theme is the problem of charity: how do the comparatively rich deal with the problem of the ‘worthy poor’, and what leads them to show liberality and benevolence? Conversely, what’s to stop the poor from tapping the rich meretriciously, and if they do who’s to say they’re to blame in a capitalist world of inequality?  Cheever uses the brilliant phrase ‘licentious benevolence’ for the murky impulse to be selflessly charitable on just one day of the year. Does the upper-class person with wealth and a conscience pass by the beggar on the street without taking pity and putting money in their cup on the patronising grounds that they’ll probably spend it on booze or drugs? But what if they have, like Bob Cratchit, a hungry, disabled child at home who relies on them to bring food to the table? It’s an enduring dilemma.

Both stories belie Cheever’s reputation as the Chekhov of the suburbs, and deal with the working-class poor; in both cases their straitened circumstances are highlighted by contrast with the immoderate wealth of the rich, who live in opulent luxury. I’m not sure he fully understands them.

The imagery throughout the story places heavy emphasis on the opposing binary fields of dark and light: ‘the sky outside his window was black’ appears in the first paragraph. In paragraph two there’s this:

…the only lights burning were lights that had been forgotten…The neighbourhood was dark…[there’s a]wall of black windows.

On the next page, as Charlie starts work, we read that the heating system didn’t

lighten his loneliness or his petulance. The black air outside the glass doors had begun to turn blue, but the blue light seemed to have no source…It was a tearful light, and as it picked out the empty street, he wanted to cry.

We’ve previously noted how Cheever isn’t shy of using pathetic fallacy – maybe too heavy-handedly. Here ‘a tearful light’ strikes me as a little forced – though it links neatly with Charlie’s desire to cry.

Like ‘O City’ this is a parable, a fable, a fairy tale. It’s also, again, very humorous, despite its darkness and sombre undertones.

There are some typically fine turns of phrase that stand out in their lyricism in relief against Cheever’s otherwise characteristically unshowy style. As early as the second paragraph – he does like to start and end his stories with panache – there’s a terrific description of Charlie’s grumpy, grudging, misanthropic journey to work on Christmas morning:

Millions and millions were sleeping, and this general loss of consciousness generated an impression of abandonment, as if this were the fall of the city, the end of time.

Ignorance and want, same illustrator, A Christmas Carol. Wikimedia Commons

Ignorance and want, same illustrator, A Christmas Carol. Wikimedia Commons

I’ve noticed Cheever’s predilection for images introduced by ‘as if’; this is one of several in the story, and he makes frequent use of the device elsewhere. Here the language in the simile soars daringly, and the author shows a preparedness to reach for magniloquent, lofty philosophical , even spiritual heights (and depths) that complicate the otherwise jocular narrative. Like Dickens, Cheever isn’t afraid of taking risks with such juxtapositions, of flirting with sententiousness; both writers at times therefore fire duds, or lapse into sentimental or overcooked prose, but when they get it right, as here, they’re breathtaking.

What I find interesting as well here is the way Cheever’s narrative voice shifts in and out of the protagonist’s consciousness: whose ‘impression’ is this? Surely not Charlie’s, who’s too full of self-pity at this point, and lacking in introspection and vocabulary, to entertain such thoughts. Although he’s sorry for himself, he doesn’t come across as the type to have notions of eschatology like this.

So: I intended keeping this post shorter, and find I’ve rattled on at length yet again. There are other outstanding features in this story I’d like to explore, like the wonderful thumbnail sketches of the varied tenants Charlie taps for gifts. I can’t resist one: Mrs Hewing, who Charlie ‘happened to know, was kind of immoral’ – note the comical use of Charlie’s own idiom within the narrative there, that modernist technique Genette calls focalisation (but Jane Austen also uses it with aplomb)– and when he first takes her down in his elevator ‘hadn’t been to bed yet’; later she calls him to her floor to give him his gift and appears

Standing in the hall, in a kind of negligee…She had been crying and drinking.

There’s a whole novel compressed there.

And there I’d better stop.

In his Journals Cheever expressed a desire ‘to disguise nothing, to conceal nothing, to write about those things that are closest to our pain, our happiness’. That polarity – pain and happiness – I’d like to have shown more clearly in my previous post. It’s central in this story.

Beneath the veneer of sly humour this is a grim, furious fable again, like ‘O City’, about the potential for inhumanity in people, of our capacity for selfishness and hypocrisy, and for convincing ourselves that taking a course of action that serves our own purposes, even if it costs others, is justifiable.

Occluded lives: John Cheever, ‘O City of Broken Dreams’

This post will be a response to Michael Pucci’s thorough and thoughtful account of the plot, themes and merits of  ‘O City of Broken Dreams’ at the Mookse and Gripes site earlier this year.

The New Yorker published the majority of Cheever’s stories: 121 appeared there between 1935 and 1981. This one was published in the Jan. 24, 1948 issue. It’s the fourth in the Collected Stories, first published in the US in 1978; I’m using the Vintage paperback edition published in the UK in 2010.

Michael contrasts the relatively healthy nature of the marriage of Evarts and Alice Malloy as portrayed in this story  with that of the Hollises in ‘The Summer Farmer’, his (and my) previous Cheever topic; I’d also contrast it with the rancorous relationship of the Westcotts in the story I wrote about last time, ‘The Enormous Radio’.

Cheever, whose struggles with alcoholism and his sexuality are well known, was a connoisseur of fakery. His stories often explore and expose the surfaces his characters assemble to present to the world, and the contrasting, occluded reality underneath. This duality or complexity is apparent in ‘O City’, as it is in many others: there is no single ‘true’ reading.

The Malloys’ marriage, it seems to me, is what this story presents, through the fable of the pursuit of the American dream in New York. But despite its apparent wholesomeness, there are fissures in this marriage.

At first it’s Alice who’s the sensible one; back home in Wentworth, Indiana she had been known as ‘the practical member of the family’; Evarts ‘would have misplaced his head if it hadn’t been for Alice’, it ‘was often said’. She ‘studied the timetable’ and told her husband not to take the luggage down from the rack too soon as their train approached New York. She’s the one who’d pressured the big-shot New York producer giving a talk in Wentworth into reading Evarts’s script, and it’s her ‘businesslike strain’ that causes her to urge Evarts to work on his script once they are installed in the delightfully named, seriously dingy Hotel Mentone. She ‘forbade’ Evarts from asking directions once they’d arrived at the big city, and had studied the map so that she knew where to go: ‘”If they find out we’re green, they’ll fleece us.”’

Evarts demonstrates how ‘green’ he is when he fails to tell the elevator operator what floor he wants when he visits the Hauser agency skyscraper, and is sneered at by him as a consequence. A butler at the superficially grand house of the producer Sam Farley reveals the sham nature of the place’s grandeur, yet Evarts only guesses he’s a butler because he wears ‘striped pants’. (By the way, it’s worth pointing out here that this story is often, as here, painfully  funny. I’m aware that I’m not showing this emphatically enough.)

Yet Alice is not very bright, as her ‘rind/Rhine’ malaproprism indicates. She fancifully considered the ‘frosty glitter’ of the paving in the station as they arrived at Grand Central station, and wondered naively if ‘diamonds had been ground into the concrete.’ She’s maybe more of a dreamer than Evarts.

By bringing his family on the long journey away from their dull mid-Western town to the big city, Evarts Malloy has rashly exposed them not only to its surface glamour and potential for the luxurious life, but also to its dangers and capacity to chew up innocents like them.

As Betsy Pelz perceptively suggests in a comment on Michael’s analysis, there are two

Arthur Rackham illustration to a 1912 edition of the Aesop fable

Arthur Rackham illustration to a 1912 edition of the Aesop fable (Wikimedia Commons)

stories co-existing in the narrative: one  –  the more obvious — is the Country Mouse and the Town Mouse fable: the ‘very green young man’ who has burnt his bridges, ‘takes on Manhattan and almost survives a string of adventures’, and who shows every sign, after being deceived by the people he meets, who all try to exploit his naiveté, from the hotel bellboy to the agents and producers, of dusting himself off and maybe even heading for Hollywood and fame.

The other is more interesting: the Indiana night-bus driver with ‘callused hands’, but who’s an artist and has written the first act of a play, but who’s ‘bogged down’ by a wife who lacks imagination, common sense and intelligence. He is evidently susceptible to more alluring and glamorous feminine prospects. There’s the beautiful actress who feigns interest in starring in his play, which he dimly perceives she can’t even have had time to have read when she professes to admire it: ‘he was too confused by her beauty to worry or to speak…he felt as though he had fallen in love.’

I think this is a more satisfying reading: it’s true that there’s a hint at a possibly upbeat ending: on the train as it leaves New York Evarts tells his wife he’ll wait till they reach Chicago before deciding whether to take the line home, to return to their ‘dismal town’, and the safe but dull, artistically numb life there, or to head for Hollywood and chase his dream.

Michael is clearly rooting for Evarts to become the hick who hits the big time; the narrator hints at this as being the option that’s ‘easier to imagine.’ I’m not so sure: Evarts has only written the first act of his play, and fails to write a word while in Manhattan; he yearns for the smells and sounds of Indiana to inspire him: in New York he’s blocked – though admittedly he’s in a state of turmoil because of what’s happening to them; he and Alice are full of awe at the novelty and modernity of the city. Is he really capable of writing more? Is he even any good? Would Hollywood care?

Michael also shows that the narrator, who is usually consistently omniscient and largely shows an ironically knowing tone in portraying the ways in which this innocent couple is repeatedly cheated, perplexed and exploited by the decadent, rapacious inhabitants of the metropolis (‘many innocents had been there before them’, the narrator tells us early on; there’s Cheever’s characteristically pointed use of pathetic fallacy to set the tone: ‘they could see the pitiless winter afterglow beyond the Hudson River’). But the narrator noticeably relinquishes all knowledge and prescience in the final paragraphs, and prefers to use the low modality of the auxiliary verbs ‘may have’.

This is a technique he uses in other stories, in order to give the ending the enigmatic quality that leaves interpretation open. I’ve discussed this in previous posts on Cheever. In ‘O City’ he similarly refrains from providing an authoritative, conclusive ending. As Henry James might have agreed, in life, in relationships, there are no endings: all the artist can do is ‘draw the circle in which they appear to do so’.

To conclude, I find this story too long. It has all the virtues of the typically well crafted New Yorker story, but also some of the formulaic qualities of the O. Henry sort of plot (as I’ve suggested in previous posts about Cheever stories). You can see the workings. There are too many sequences with rascally conmen keen to exploit Evarts.

It’s clear to see, as Michael insists, that it’s a kind of ‘fable’ or ‘parable’. I take him to mean by this that a moral lesson is adumbrated. Because of the story’s ambiguities and its open ending, however, this lesson is clouded.

Aesop’s moral is clear: ‘better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear’. Better the poverty, hardship, simplicity and peace of the country than the luxury, plenty, sophistication, privilege and nerve-shredding dangers of the shark-infested city. When they arrive the Malloys are described as ‘the hard-working children of an industrious generation’, but as they leave the Grand Central station the weather as always is an index of the mood, and the narrator reminds us of Alice’s naïve perception when she arrived:

It was a rainy night, and the dark, wet paving, deep in the station, did not glitter, but it was still Alice’s belief that diamonds had been ground into it, and that was the way she would tell the story.

The symmetry here – the repetition of her belief in diamonds in the paving – seems to me too pat, a bit contrived. But it does serve to show that Alice is maybe not so sensible and has learnt nothing (apart from the superficial ‘lessons’ of travelling arrangements: ‘they arranged themselves adroitly over several seats.’)

Evarts, however, has possibly changed as a result of his abrasive contact with urban slickers, and may well have developed the capacity to adapt and reinvent himself. Does this suggest, however, that achieving the promise of the American dream involves becoming tainted in the process? Evarts seems to have lost his innocence by the story’s end. When Alice performs her melodramatic swoon at the end of her party piece song in the over-long middle of the story, the sophisticates at the party cruelly laugh at her. She’s mortified, and Evarts comforts her – but she’s shown him up, too, and embarrassed them both. This epiphany reveals to him the perception he’d previously been unaware of: Alice is a liability. If he’s to hit the big time her small-town limitations and unsophisticated ingenuousness will possibly hold him back.

Robert Henryson’s moralitas to his Middle Scots version of Aesop has this serene message:

Quha hes eneuch, of na mair hes he need…

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s is:

And use it well that is to thee allotted,

Then seek no more out of thyself to find

The thing that thou hast sought so long before…

This Zen-like message, with its binary opposites, is: be content with what you have, seek inside yourself for the answer to your prayers (and dreams), don’t quest needlessly far afield for it . Cheever gives this reassuring but constraining, ‘be content with the limited life you lead/home is where the heart is’ message a cynical spin: that mysterious, deliberately open ending refuses to conform to the fabulist’s black-and-white morality tale strictures.

Maybe Evarts has learnt a different lesson: to succeed it’s necessary to emulate the sharks.

Chris Power’s illuminating survey in the Guardian newspaper of The Short Story includes Cheever at no. 45 here.


John Cheever, ‘The Enormous Radio’.

After posting yesterday about John Cheever’s story ‘The Summer Farmer’, I thought I’d post briefly today about the first of Michael Pucci’s choices in his series of reviews at The Mookse and the Gripes site: ‘The Enormous Radio’. I’d also recommend this beautifully written review from New Republic in 1991 by John Updike of the then recently-published edited Journals of Cheever; he found their ’emotional nakedness’ disconcerting and painful to read.

First published in the May 17, 1947 issue of The New Yorker, this story is one of Cheever The Complete StoriesCheever’s earliest in the Collected Stories (I’m using the Vintage paperback edition published in the UK in 2010).

Pucci quotes the opening sentences as indicative of Cheever’s deceptively deadpan style and detached point of view, and of his astonishing ability to capture and summarise character concisely. The plot is one of his most ‘fantastical’, but is narrated in a surreally unfantastical way: Jim and Irene Westcott live in a city apartment on the twelfth floor. It’s near ‘Sutton Place’, where other Cheever stories are located. They are ordinary, even humdrum people with very little money (though they can afford a maid). When their radio breaks Jim splashes out on a big new one, even though they can’t really afford it. So far this is very O. Henry.

Then it starts to get strange: they listen to music stations, but also begin to pick up conversations conducted by their apartment block neighbours. At first these are routine domestic exchanges, but gradually Irene becomes addicted to the increasingly intimate, often sordid talk emanating from the radio, and invades the privacy of the other tenants on ‘carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith, and despair’ – language typical of Cheever: large abstract nouns, as we saw in my previous post. This radio clearly has a ‘sensitivity to discord’, and Irene loves eavesdropping on the increasingly disquieting revelations it broadcasts, such as a cocktail party that ‘had overshot its mark’ – alcohol features prominently in Cheever’s stories as it did, ruinously, in his life (Irene has two Martinis at lunch, but leaves childcare and domestic chores to the maid).

‘Isn’t this too divine?’ she coos, in her faux ‘classy’ idiom.

As in the marriage of the Hollises in ‘The Summer Farmer’, all is not well in this relationship. Soon Jim explodes at his prurient wife’s hypocrisy, hurling at her all the peccadilloes of which she has been guilty, but about which they have never previously spoken. The list of sins escalates in seriousness, and ends with a shocking revelation that leaves Irene feeling ‘disgraced and sickened.’

Although it’s an early, rather formulaic example of Cheever’s stories, it shows many of the signs that he will fine-tune in later work: a dysfunctional couple in the ‘bitter mystery’ of their marriage in all its ‘carnal anarchy’ (Kureishi’s Introduction). As in the Hollis marriage the couple fail to express their true feelings, or to communicate. When Jim’s patience finally expires his outburst is savage in its ferocity, whereas the Hollises, one feels, will meander on through their arid lives, avoiding confronting unpleasant truths.

They are even more obsessed with status and appearances than the Hollises (who vacationed in their ‘summer farm’): Irene listens to classical music, and conceals the ugly radio cabinet behind a sofa. She goes out on ‘luncheon’ dates and wears a hat and ‘furs’. They aspire to live in Westchester.

Some of the overheard discourse is beautifully rendered: banal , fragmentary but indicating the same fault-lines in the tenants’ lives that are eventually revealed in the Westcotts’:

‘Are you all right, darling?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ a woman said wearily. ‘Yes, I’m alright I guess,’ and then she added with great feeling, ‘But, you know, Charlie, I don’t feel like myself any more. Sometimes there are about fifteen or twenty minutes in the week when I feel like myself. I don’t like to go to another doctor, because the doctor’s bills are so awful already, but I just don’t feel like myself, Charlie. I just never feel like myself.’

This is brilliant ventriloquism: the fractured delivery, repetitions of clichés and evasions, inability of the woman to express herself in a meaningfully accurate or coherent way, and lack of connection between the two– it reminds me of passages of bleak lower-class life in T.S. Eliot’s early poetry. It’s in these fragments of domestic tragedy and their concise revelations of despair and disconnectedness that the full power of the story resides, rather than in the unlikely plot device of the eavesdropping radio.

John Cheever, ‘The Summer Farmer’: one of the Hollow Men

John Cheever, ‘The Summer Farmer’, in Collected Stories (Vintage, London; first published in Great Britain – 1979; this edition with Introduction by Hanif Kureishi – 2010)

For a change I shall begin by recommending another review of John Cheever’s ‘The Summer Farmer’: it’s in a series of pieces on the stories of Cheever over at the excellent The Mookse and the Gripes site. Michael Pucci gives a detailed assessment there of this story about a city dweller, Paul Hollis, and his competitive spat with the ‘bitter’ and ‘discontented’ hired man, the Russian-born communist Kasiak, who is contemptuous of Hollis’s comparatively indolent work ethic and the lax morals and ‘disorderly’, bourgeois  nature of Hollis’s family (the adults all drink excessively, and they give their animals names, which Kasiak thinks is sentimental).

Pucci judges it not one of Cheever’s best stories, feeling it has an over-obvious twist at the end which makes too ‘convenient a point’. I intend exploring this evaluation with an examination of the language and style of this story, and a closer scrutiny of what that convenient ‘point’ might be; I think this conclusion is a little too dismissive and imprecise.

Cheever The Complete StoriesIn his Introduction to this English edition Hanif Kureishi astutely identifies several key themes in Cheever stories. First there’s what Cheever himself calls ‘the bitter mystery of marriage’, with its ‘carnal anarchy’. As the eponymous ‘farmer’ Hollis drives from the station junction in rural New Hampshire, having travelled there on his weekly commute from New York City – his family is spending the summer at the farm he inherited from his parents, and which he visits every weekend in the summer – the conversation he has with his ‘gentle wife’ Virginia (the adjective sounds ironic) hints at the central evasions of his life; their talk

was confined to the modest properties and affections they shared; more than this, it seemed to aim at a deliberate inconsequence, as if to mention the checking balance or the wars might ruin the spell of a mild morning and an open car.

Once in the house, in the room that had been his parents’, he and Virginia talk about family. Cheever’s use of abstract nouns here and in the rest of the story is particularly telling – I shall allude to this several times. The syntax is subtle and ambiguous; they taste the ‘astringency’ of their contentment in marriage – it’s clearly not unalloyed happiness – and their ‘worthiness’ (is this also ‘astringent’?), an abstract noun that seems to suggest a positive but which is in fact freighted with negative connotations: their life, it suggests, is a sham. Why else does Hollis have to anaesthetise himself with whisky in the train’s club car on his journey to the country? Yes, to wash away the polluting air of ‘the hot city’ and his job there, but also surely to indicate to the reader that there’s something awry with his life as a whole.

This is reinforced by the fact that, as they drive from the station to the farm, they pass through the ‘vitiated New Hampshire landscape, with its omnipresence of ruin’.

An ambivalent atmosphere is sustained once he reaches the farm; Hollis feels a ‘violent’ sense of ‘homecoming ’, of ‘returning to a place where he had summered all his life’,  and of overwhelming love for his children, but this is counterpointed by the description of his stern lecture to them about caring for their new pet rabbits, which ‘reduced him to a fatuity that he was conscious of himself.’

There’s a socio-political context lightly sketched in that adds to the richness of the story. His ‘coveralls’ still bear the dimly stencilled marks of his military ‘name, rank and serial number.’ This hints that he’d found some kind of real purpose and identity, perhaps, during his military war service which he tries to reassume by clothing himself in it symbolically at the farm, but that purpose has ‘faded’ into insignificance during the subsequent cold-war years –  a theme that recurs in Cheever’s  stories of this era (I hope to show this in future posts).

The story was published in 1948 in The New Yorker, when, as Betsy Pelz points out in a comment on Pucci’s article, the alliance with the Soviet Union had broken down and the House Un-American Activities Committee had been set up for three years, though McCarthy wasn’t to chair hearings until some years later. It’s a ‘charade of equality’ between Hollis and his malcontent hired man; this is one of Hollis’s ‘principle illusions’. In reality they’re engaged in a ‘puerile race’ – like the arms race to come in the near future? Near the end of the story Hollis fears that Kasiak is plotting a revolution of the ‘diligent and the reliable to seize power from the hands of those who drank Martinis’.

‘Dangerous seduction’ (Pelz) is a theme of the story in this threatening, unsettled climate: Hollis tried to appease Kasiak’s revolutionary anger and disapproval of his own bourgeois family life by showing ‘reasonableness’ (another of those revealing abstract nouns), and he was accommodating towards his lush of a sister and languid, disengaged wife. He strove for ‘contentment’ by taking a non-committal or supine position in relation to these problems in his life, and as a consequence he’s taken advantage of, discontented and has made decisions which worsened an already mediocre life.

There is a serpent in this rural Eden of his (his father had called the highest pasture ‘Elysian’ because of ‘its unearthly stillness’); is this the story’s central message? Hollis represents middle America, and has lost his bearings, is a hollow man, oscillating between a meaningless city job he hates, and a rural, hereditary idyll (he’s a ‘vacationist’, not a real farmer, one of what Kasiak dismisses as the ‘useless people’) that is tainted and failing; it’s a lie. Frequent references to brooding weather –  shadows, clouds  (some of them ‘clouds of filth’), rain, thunderstorms and so on – convey this atmosphere of impending doom in the story in a kind of recurring pathetic fallacy:

While they had been working, clouds had blackened the sky from the horizon to above his head, so he was given the illusion of a country divided evenly between the lights of catastrophe and repose.

The lyrical, elegiac final paragraphs (a Cheever trademark), quoted at length by Pucci, bring out these contradictions, with their accusatory abstract nouns: ‘the self-importance, diffidence or sadness with which we settle ourselves’ – the switch to the first person plural signifies the inclusivity of the message; we are all implicated in this futile attempt to live an idyllic or precariously balanced life. Hollis is broken; his right hand has ‘a tremor’, revealing his ‘mortality’; his ‘confused frown’ indicates his ‘obsoleteness’, and his ‘lame shoulders’ – the odd collocation highlights this dysfunctional description – are a consequence of ‘some recent loss of principle.’ Appeasement, striving for the apparently reasonable, quiet life, is destined to fail.

As Kureishi says it’s ‘status, self-respect and work, rather than sexual passion, which drives us’ in Cheever’s world. Hollis is forced to confront the fact that he has attained or succeeded in none of these. Hollis’s sister, sitting at the dinner table ‘high in her firmament of gin’, serves to illustrate the brokenness of this family’s life:

For with any proximity the constellations of some families generate among themselves an asperity that nothing can sweeten.

The style is grandiose here, but the abstract noun ‘asperity’ is a close cousin to the ‘astringency’ tasted in Hollis’s marriage, noted earlier, and the repetition of a sense-perception image subtly underlines the story’s purpose:

There was something wrong, some half-known evil in her worship of the bucolic scene – some measure of her inadequacy, and, he supposed, of his.

I’ve tried to show that Pucci’s assessment of this story is probably correct: it’s not one of Cheever’s best. Nevertheless, I believe it shows flashes of almost Chekhovian insights into ‘significant moments in ordinary lives’ (this is Kureishi again), with almost ‘every sentence weighed and balanced until it says the right thing’, uniting the personal with the political. His characters’ hopes for post-war American prosperity and peace (‘the bucolic scene’) are undermined by fears that they are false hopes and everything will be taken away from them some time in the uncertain future, and their lives shattered. Even if Hollis proves Kasiak’s derisive prediction wrong and does return in future summers, his life is depicted as shattered, or at least, disastrously cracked, and he will never feel content again on his summer farm.