Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever


What a stunning book! The chapters about Moses and Melissa and Justina near the end -- when Melissa is sort of shut up in the grim castle her rich loveless Aunt Justina owns, and Moses has to sneak out the window and across the roof at night to make love to her, before they marry -- the chapters come out of nowhere like a mock-Gothic.

He had not fallen in love with her because of her gift with arithmetic, because of her cleanliness, her reasonable mind or any other human excellence. It was because he perceived in her some extraordinary inner comeliness or grace that satisfied his needs.

Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Bodies in Motion and At Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality by Thomas Lynch


Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey

Really enjoying this earlier title by the cancelled Blake Bailey.

JC came to admire the style as typical of a certain nautical New England mentality that "makes as little as possible of any event." [11]

"As my mother often pointed out," Cheever said, "she drank two Manhattan cocktails that evening. Otherwise I would have remained unborn on a star." [20]

"I think of Europe as a rat-toothed bitch." (1934, from 'Letter from the Mountains.) [70]

"The short story is determined by moving around from place to place, by the interrupted event. The vigorous nineteenth-century novel is based on parish life and a lack of communications." [195]

Malcolm Cowley advice: "Take some situation like the one you treated in Goodbye, My Brother, and work back (not forward) till the characters assumed their full roundness." [101]

"I realized that my father was a better writer than I, and using his style I went on then to invent a character and a life that would have gratified him." (on creating Leander for Wapshot Chronicle) [216]

"The writers explained that—aside from the indifference of publishers—to collect short stories is something like marrying many times and collecting all your wives under one roof on a rainy day. Furthermore, collections of short stories are usually reviewed in tandem or four-inhand and in an atmosphere of combativeness (X is more sensitive than Y) that overlooks the fact, known to most writers, that to make sense out of life is an exertion of uncommon cooperativeness." (from JC Author's Note to Stories) [233]

reax to Wapshot Chronicle: 
“Cheever's venture is exuberantly, cantankerously, absurdly, audaciously alive,” wrote Glendy Culligan, who also found the book “brilliant, ebullient, alternately sad, funny and tender …”  And then there were critics who thought Cheever had decidedly broken loose —not only advancing on previous work, but (as Fanny Butcher claimed in the Chicago Sunday Tribune) “add[ing] something new to the stream of American fiction.” But perhaps the poet Winfield Townley Scott said it best: “It is difficult to think of another contemporary who can write without sentimentality and yet with so much love.” [240]

As Rick Moody wrote in his foreword to a later edition, “Where did [Cheever] get the confidence to begin disassembling and reassembling American naturalist fiction, thereby helping to pave the way for the experimentation of the late sixties and the seventies? He got the confidence by writing The Wapshot Chronicle."  [241]

“One never, of course, asks is it a novel?” he [JC] once wrote. “One asks is it interesting and interest connotes suspense, emotional involvement and a sustained claim on one's attention.” In those terms, at least, Cheever was a consummate novelist, as were his eighteenthcentury forebears, Fielding and Sterne.  [242]

"How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?" (Moses after Justina's funeral) [279]

JC on William Maxwell: "If you don't grow and change he baits you; if you do grow and change he baits you cruelly." [279]

JC repeating his father's adage: "If you run they'll bite you. If you stand still they'll fuck you in the arse." [279]

Susan Cheever on JC: "You have two strings to play. One is the history of your family, the other is your childlike sense of wonder. Both of them are broken."

"It's not possible to talk to you. You say what you don't mean and you mean what you don't say." [309]

some bad reviews: [356]
“It was no accident that Time should have offered Cheever to the world as a kind of crew-cut Ivy-League Faulkner of the New York exurbs.” Cheever's vacuous characters took refuge in “small, arbitrary” rebellions, or in pathetic, misguided nostalgia, or in daydreams “not of Walter Mittyish grandiosity, but of almost girlish modesty and poignance.”

Irving Howe described him as a “toothless Thurber”

Cheever dismissed Aldridge as little better than a vandal, while privately agreeing with him somewhat. “I seem neither sane enough nor mad enough,” he wrote in his journal shortly after the review appeared.

JC on Bullet Park conception “I would like to write a gothic novel,” he [JC] wrote, “without being caught in the act.” [357]

JC in Chicago at awards ceremony: "When The Wapshot Scandal was completed my first instinct was to commit suicide. I thought I might cure my melancholy if I destroyed the novel and I said as much to my wife. She said that it was, after all, my novel and I could do as I pleased but how could she explain to the children what it was that I had been doing for the last four years. Thus my concern for appearances accounted for the publication of the novel." [361]

Updike: “In fact, I know now, the literary scene is a kind of Medusa's raft, small and sinking, and one's instinct when a newcomer tries to clamber aboard is to stamp on his fingers.” [362]

“And to tell the truth I am, alone, utterly incompetent. I step into a bar where there are some whores and my cock seems to strike an affirmative attitude of limpness. Nothing doing, it says. … It seems to be a homeloving cock, attached to simple food, open fires and licit ejaculations.” [363]

The session was the most crowded in recent memory: some two thousand scholars packed a room at the Palmer House, while others listened outside on the PA system. Ellison got things started with a pompous, leaden address that “seemed to puzzle the audience,” as Richard Stern wrote in The New York Review of Books, but Cheever's speech—”The Parable of the Diligent Novelist”—left everybody (but Mailer) “ablaze with pleasure.” Cheever told of a man who quits the seminary to become a writer, until one day (“when he was busily trying to describe the sound of a winter rain”) he glances at the Times and realizes that, given the violence of his age, such an occupation is “contemptible;” thus he becomes a war correspondent in Saigon. When this begins to pall, he returns to New York and writes a pornographic novel titled Manhattan Beach Boy, but it doesn't seem convincing enough: “He saw that
the sexual candor of men like Miller, Updike, Mailer and Roth was not a question of their raw material but of their mastery of the subject.” Therefore he embarks on a spree of buggery and exhibitionism, and in the course of “confronting those barriers of consciousness that should challenge a writer” he also turns to alcohol and drugs: “His writing, while he is drugged, seems to him stupendous but when he reads it over during his few sober moments he realizes it is worthless.” Ultimately, he becomes a spy and is run over by a taxi in Moscow: “Writing a novel,” he gasps, dying, “becomes more difficult each day.”

Mailer was “pissed”: “In those days I took myself very seriously,” he recalled, “and was indeed embattled.” He regarded Cheever as a lightweight—”darling of The New Yorker, Time cover boy, that sort of thing”—a lapdog of the establishment, in short, which was constantly sniping at Mailer back then. Clutching the microphone and glaring at Cheever (who gazed benignantly back), Mailer delivered “a corrosive, brilliant, hit-and-run analysis of the failure of American novelists to keep up with a whirling country,” as Stern described it. “There has been a war at the center of American letters for a long time,” Mailer declared. This began as a “class war” between realists like Dreiser who attempted to produce novels “which would ignite a nation's consciousness of itself,” and genteel entertainers who
appealed to “an uppermiddleclass [looking] for a development of its taste. … That demand is still being made by a magazine called The New Yorker.“ In the end, said Mailer, both impulses had “failed,” and literature was now being superseded by movies and television.  [368]

Because Gurganus had an enlightened reverence for his teacher, he was willing to put forth his best effort in completing the menial “drills” Cheever saw fit to assign: “Write me a love letter in a burning building,” he'd say, or “Give me seven or eight disparate objects or incidents that are superficially alien and yet profoundly allied.” [474]

“John couldn't find one thing to praise in her work,” Gurganus recalled. “He smelled her bad luck and her poverty and her ordinariness, and maybe he felt it was wrong to encourage her if he didn't think she had a future.” [476]

JC to TC Boyle: “All writing is ‘experimental,’ Tom,” he said. “Don't get caught up in fads.” [476]

TC Boyle on JC: To this day he's still reading it, though it's been a long time since he's read any
Barthelme or Barth. “Anyone can write a Barthelme story,” said Boyle. “No one can write a Cheever story.” [376]

While Hansen and Irwin listened with widening eyes, Cheever added, “Fellatio is the nicest thing one human being can do for another.” [478]

When Candida Donadio sent him a copy of the acclaimed new novel by Joseph Heller (another of her clients), Something Happened, Cheever read a few pages and threw it out the window. Because he liked it. [500]

“The director [of the alcoholic intake 28-day program],” he noted, “toward whom I have some complicated vibrations, says that a healthy person can adjust to acceptable social norms. The banality of a TV show, certainly acceptable, is what makes me want to drink.” That was the kind of attitude (the world is to blame in all its deadening banality, especially given one's higher sensibility—etc.) that provoked the staff into insisting, after a week or so, that Cheever stop writing so much in his journal and start concentrating on the Twelve Steps. Resignedly he wrote his brother, Fred, “They don't want me to work and it seems best to play along with this and everything else.” 512]

“I'm really allright but I can't say so here because only the hopeless lush claims to be allright,” he wrote Weaver. “That's a point of view I'm discouraged from taking because I've ruined my life with false light-heartedness.” This was irony, of course, and yet even Cheever's friends had often wondered at his constant, nervous “outward tremor of laughter” (as Shirley Hazzard put it), sometimes at very odd moments; as for the people at Smithers, they were openly startled by it. “Why are you laughing?” they demanded again and again, as Cheever tittered at some grindingly miserable memory from his youth, or some cruelty he'd inflicted on his children.

Bullied at every turn for his “false light-heartedness” and “grandiosity,” Cheever retreated into a vast, fraudulent humility. “Oh, but of course you're right,” he'd mutter (in so many words) when challenged. Nobody was fooled or amused. Carol Kitman, a staff psychologist, remarked that Cheever reminded her of Uriah Heep: “He is a classic denier who moves in and out of focus,” she wrote in her progress notes. “He dislikes seeing self negatively and seems to have internalized many rather imperious upper class Boston attitudes which he ridicules and embraces at the same time. … Press him to deal with his own humanity.” Told he was just like John Berryman, Cheever (“humbly”) replied, “But he was a brilliant poet and an estimable scholar, and I'm neither.” Yes, said the counselor, but he was also a phony and a drunk, and now he's dead; is that what you want? Cheever affected to take this sort of thing in stride, though in fact it was a ghastly humiliation. [513]

For the rest of his life, AA meetings would serve as his main source of social diversion. Two or three times a week, he'd drive to various parish houses around Westchester, usually after dinner when the urge to drink was strongest. Fred helped him get started by going along for a few meetings right after Smithers, pleased to find himself back in a mentorly role vis-à-vis his little brother: “[If John] can do [AA] on an amusing and semi-humorous basis,” he wrote his son, “it will be a great help to him and I'm quite sure, a lot of fun for all those who attend the meetings.” This would prove a prescient summary of his brother's AA experience. Cheever continued to find absurd the whole metaphysical aspect of AA (“lack[ing] the coherence of a redneck cult”), but, that said, it was the only thing that worked—a constant reminder that alcoholism was “an obscene mode of death.” And then, quite apart from the therapeutic benefit, Cheever did manage to enjoy himself after a fashion. He found solace in the simple mantra “My name is Jawn and I am an alcohaulic,” and if called on to speak further, he rarely failed to entertain. Luxuriating in his persona as a rather seedily genteel old lush, he'd wryly tell of past and present sorrows: his “wife of a hundred years” who wasn't speaking to him, his children whom he'd never really understood, and so on.

Mostly Cheever was keen on listening to others tell their stories, the better to recycle them into funny anecdotes and perhaps even fiction. “He certainly didn't respect anybody's confidence,” Federico recalled. “Much as he made fun of the sentimental, badly told tragedies, I think he ate them up and I think they kept him straight.” Some of the more dreadful scenes at AA meetings would excite a peculiar dialogue between the charitable, sober Cheever and the malicious rogue he now sought to repress. Watching a pathetic old man in an “ill-fitting suit” accept a cake with thirty-eight candles commemorating his long, long sobriety, Cheever was tempted to point out that “he could have done as well dying of cirrhosis, but that would be sinful.” That would be sinful: What Cheever kept learning from AA was that being sober was a matter of sacred dignity, and that people from every conceivable class and background could be essential to one another. Only with fellow alcoholics could he comfortably discuss his own loneliness and bewilderment. “ ‘Yesterday was a memory, tomorrow is a dream,’ says a man who is dressed like a gas pumper and has only three front teeth,” he wrote in his journal. “From what text, greeting card, or book he took the message doesn't matter to me at this hour.” At other times, to be sure, he might laugh at such a chestnut—but such laughter (“acid, scornful and motivated by pitiable defensiveness”) was an irksome betrayal of the better person he longed to become. [517-518]

[notes for acceptance speech for Edward MacDowell Medal] The day before yesterday I was saying goodbye to a very dear friend and as I watched him go away it was only, I think, through my grasp of fiction, through narrative and through invention that I could first reproach myself for loving him excessively and then attack psychiatry for having added the element of prudence to love—and then to have concluded that imprudence is a synonym for love, a conclusion I could not have reached were I not an author of fiction. [611]

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