Washington Post Book Club: The Wapshot Chronicle
May Post Book Club Selection
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2004; 3:00 PM
American short story writer John Cheever also wrote five novels. In his two best novels -- The Wapshot Chronicle and Falconer -- Cheever kept his febrile inventiveness under control. Cheever's first short story was published in the New Republic when he was 18. He wrote a collection of stories in "The Way Some People Live" in 1943. His first novel, "The Wapshot Chronicle," however didn't come out until 1957, when he was in his mid-forties. And nothing published before 1947 made it into his 1978 omnibus, "The Stories of John Cheever."
Welcome to the online meeting of The Washington Post Book Club, a monthly program presented by the editors and writers of Washington Post Book World.
Post Book World staff writer Dennis Drabelle was online Thursday, May 27 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss this month's selection, "The Wapshot Chronicle" by John Cheever.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Dennis Drabelle: Welcome to the Washington Post Book Club discussion of John Cheever's The Wapshot Chronicle. I thought I would start by saying that Cheever has long been a favorite of mine, I think because I grew up in a rather arid suburb--a Midwestern Levittown--and his stories in which suburban residents get involved in almost mythical fables had a kind of redemptive force for me. I also love the singing quality of his prose, which was obviously influenced by the King James version of the Bible (he was a churchgoing Episcopalian throughout his life). Having said that, I should note that the suburb in which Coverly Wapshot and wife live comes in for some heavy criticism in the Chronicle. Cheever was not one to prettify life.
State College, Pa.:
I read the Wapshot Chronicle years ago but a
scene that I will always remember is the woman
let down when no one comes to her party. I can't
have a party of my own without worrying if no one
will show up, reminded of the book. I'm wondering
if others are struck by that scene, or if people have
incorporated other similar Cheever moments into
Dennis Drabelle: Good comment. Let's wait and see if anyone else responds. I have had a similar experience with another writer, Margaret Atwood. In one of her novels, a character gets very upset about being slighted at a party. In a snit, she leaves the living room and goes into a bedroom, where she crawls under a bed and resolves to stay there, AWOL from the party, until people start worrying about her. Hours go by, no one misses her, and she has to ignominiously crawl back out from under the bed and go back to the party. I always think of this when something hurts my feelings--the idea being not to make oneself look ridiculous when in that vulnerable situation.
What is Wapshot Chronicle about?
Dennis Drabelle: It's easier to see this when the book is read in conjunction with its sequel, The Wapshot Scandal, but I think it's about the decline of the small but relatively sophisticated town and its replacement by the post-war suburb. Cheever contrasts St. Botolphs, where everybody knows everybody else and allowances are made for weaknesses and eccentricities (Honora letting Leander use her boat to keep him occupied, the townspeople letting Honora in turn behave like some sort of queen) with the suburb in which no one comes to Betsy's party and neighbors lie to and avoid each other.
Mr. Drabelle: I had read the two "Wapshot" novels, "Falconer" and the 1978 "The Stories..."--enjoyed the rereading. Some observations and questions (Your comments? Thank you.) follow:
o Penn Warren's cover blurb: "every page is a model of narrative virtuosity." Cheever's novels seem as sparklingly polished as his short fiction. Other greatly admired novelists seem to sacrifice that to be able to say more (size of oeuvre the tradeoff). Your thoughts?
o Moses's romances with Rosalie, Beatrice and Melissa were great reading--especially the capers across the castle roof at Clear Haven and the crow gun denouement. Don't you think Cheever balances life's fluxion (humor, sorrow, passion, despair...) well?
o Coverly's new bride breaks his heart when she leaves him. She returns months later. Coverly leaves the reunion bed that night and walks across yards to find a rose to place "between Betsey's legs--where she was forked..." Moving prose, don't you think?
o "The Wapshot Scandal" ends: "I will never come back (to St. Botolphs), and if I do there will be nothing left but the headstones to record what has happened; there will really be nothing at all." Do you find the two novels pretty even or find one superior?
Dennis Drabelle: Let me start with the last question about the two novels, The Wapshot Chronicle and Scandal. I find the first one better, mostly because it seems more unified. Maybe it's Leander's journal entries (which trail off in the second book because, after all, he's dead) that supply the unifying thread that makes the difference. The Scandal seems more like a series of Cheever's celebrated stories strung together, which perhaps circles back to your first question. Cheever was probably not a natural-born novelist. But both to make money and to attract critical notice as a major writer, he had to write novels whether he wanted to or not. In my view, The Chronicle and Falconer are his best and least short-story like novels; the other three, though brilliant at times, are more episodic. And in fact several of the chapters of Bullet Park and The scandal originally appeared as stand-alone stories in The New Yorker.
Why did the author wait until his forties to publish the book?
Dennis Drabelle: It's funny about Cheever. After a very early start as a writer--a piece in The New Republic at the age of 18 and a book of short stories out when he was just past 30--he slowed down, re-evaluated his work, all but started over. As I mentioned in my Book World essay, he didn't include any story published before 1947 in his Collected Stories. There is also the problem of his alcoholism, which sometimes incapacitated him. And he sometimes worked slowly, polishing, polishing. It took him two months, he said, to write one of his masterpieces, "The Swimmer," which is only 10 pages long. So for all these reasons, it took Cheever quite a while to get around to publishing his first novel.
I read this novel years ago. And the second time around convinces me more than ever that Cheever was first-rate artist. The wapshots were both sad & funny. In the hands of a lesser writer, they would n't be that interesting. My favorite passage besides the one you quoted above was the job interview with Coverly.
Dennis Drabelle: Yes, I think Cheever is especially good at mixing tragedy and comedy. I love the line about Honora Wapshot's hats going round the world without her and the buffoonery of Moses sneaking over the rooftop to get to his beloved Melissa. Yet there is plenty of sadness, too.
What was the last short story that Cheever wrote? Also, is he truly the best American short story writer of all time?
Dennis Drabelle: I'm not sure what the last story he wrote was, but this does bring up an interesting point. Several of the late short stories are more gay than anything else he wrote. Some of these were published in Esquire, and some of them have not been collected. There was a big fracas a few years after Cheever died, when Academy Chicago, a small press, signed a contract with the Cheever estate to bring out a book of Cheever stories that had not appeared in the Collected Stories, then proceeded to put together a book that included these late stories with homosexual themes. Even though the cat was already out of the hat (especially in Susan Cheever's frank discussion of her father's bisexuality in her memoir "Home Before Dark), the estate refused to let these stories be republished. My assumption is that Cheever's widow couldn't bear to see them in print again, but that's only a surmise. As for whether Cheever is the greatest American short story writer, I could take the safe route and point out how good Hemingway and Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty and [fill in your own favorite here] were, but what the heck, I'm just going to say: YES!
You raised the question in your write-up about Cheever's own foibles and their frequent treatment in his fiction, e.g., the homosexuality in "The Wapshot Chronicle" and "The Falconer." (Ned Rorem once said he went to bed with four "Time" covers: Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward, and John Cheever.")
Regarding his alcoholism, Cheever's daughter wrote of her dad: "his drinking wasn't hidden, it was completely visible." (Fittingly, Cheever has a cameo in the film version of "The Swimmer" as some tipsy suburbanite with a drink in his hand.)
Jane Friedman says she had to do all kinds of coaxing ("I'll be there to hold your hand") for the few times she did get Cheever to meet with his adoring fans (so unlike "Oates and Updike who love it," Friedman said.) I have seen Cheever's son and daughter on C-SPAN2--both seemed comfortable appearing. Ever meet or hear Cheever? Thanks again.
Dennis Drabelle: Thanks for those interesting contributions. It's odd that Cheever shied away from his fans later in life. Early on, according to his biographer, Scott Donaldson, Cheever was a great charmer and really knew how to work a literary cocktail party. Maybe he was one of those people who do well when they're on the make, then become wary when they finally succeed. My only contact with Cheever is this. When I was a grad student in English in the 1960s, I wrote him to ask where Leander's journal had come from. He replied (and I have the letter still) that it had been drawn from his own father's journal and that the chief literary influence on his father was Shakespeare.
Can you tell us a little about Cheever's personal life?
Dennis Drabelle: He stayed married to one woman, Mary Winternitz, all his life. They had three children: Susan and Benjamin, who are both writers, and Federico, who is a lawyer. He lived a sort of country-squire life in Ossining, N.Y., the inspiration for Bullet Park, Proxmire Manor, Shady Hill, and all the other suburban enclaves that appear in his stories. He had much trouble with his drinking but finally dried out in the late 1970s and stayed sober ever after. He was bisexual, and though he denied this publicly he made use of his attraction to men in his late fiction. He seems to have been a very charming man, and I for one was certainly pleased to get a letter back to what was, after all, a rather annoying grad-student inquiry.
Regarding the Cheever short stories, do you have any favorites? Mine are "The Swimmer," "The Hartleys" and "The Cure"--plus Michael Dirda's favorite: "The Country Husband' (added after rereading). Thanks.
Dennis Drabelle: I like "Goodbye My Brother," partly because of a personal resonance. The grim brother reminds me of an uncle of mine who stormed through life finding the worst in everything. And I like "The Day the Pig Fell in the Well" for its bittersweet look at a family whose ritualized remembrance of a famous day at its summer house is used to disguise the fact that, despite all their talent and promise, none of them ever amounted to much.
Bethesda, Md. :
When did he "come out" about his attraction to men and in what book? Did he have any affairs with men during his marriage?
Dennis Drabelle: He had many affairs with men while married, including, as our correspondent from Kansas reminds us, with the composer and writer Ned Rorem. He never really came out in the sense of saying "I am gay" or anything of the sort (gay lib was only a few years old when he died in 1982, and we're talking, after all, about a New England WASP). But he did not hold back from homosexual themes in his fiction. In the Chronicle, there is that chapter that begins with a disclaimer about how some readers might want to skip ahead since we're coming to the homosexual part of the story. Contrast this with the quite lyrical affair between Falconer and his male lover in "Falconer" (though even there Cheever gave himself a little wiggle room: these guys are in prison, so one could say that they are homosexual only because there is no other choice but celibacy). So without being overt, Cheever let the evolution of his fiction do a certain amount of talking for him.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Absolutely agree with you about the irony that Cheever wrote in the most appropriate title, The Day the Pig Fell in the Well.
Were any of Cheever's writings turned into movies?
Dennis Drabelle: The only one I know of is The Swimmer, not a very good movie with Burt Lancaster in the title role. Cheever did write some dramas for TV, though, and three or four of these were made.
What did your letter say?!;!;
Dennis Drabelle: It's a bit hard to explain because I asked specfically if Cheever knew Washington Irving's Salmagundi, which I thought bore a resemblance, in its style (short, elliptical sentences or phrase), to Leander's journal. He said, "I can't remember reading Salmagundi, and I can't find any Irving on the shelves here. I could have read it years ago, of course. The style and much of the content of Leander's Journal belongs to my father, and he of course may have read Irving although the only master he ever acknowledged was Shakespear [sic]."
What story or novel do you think he was best known for? Also, what genre of writing has his children gone into and are they famous themselves -- what are their thoughts about their father's writings?
Dennis Drabelle: I think his most famous stories are probably The Swimmer and The Enormous Radio. His writing children--Susan and Benjamin--are both novelists. I want to be careful here, since Ben reviews for us, but I think it is only fair to say that although he and Susan are fine writers they will probably always be overshadowed by their dad.
That's a really nice story about writing Cheever as a young grad student and still having his reply.
After Leander's boating accident and Sarah's cruel commandeering of the "Topaz" for a gift shop, the sad former skipper looks for solace by visiting his old friend Grimes--now in an old folks' home. Grimes takes Leander on a tour of the grounds:
"That's potter's field. That's where they bury us....this fat fellow comes along with a wheelbarrow. He's got Charlie Dobbs and Henry Fosse in it. Stark naked. Dumped on top of one another. Upside down. They didn't like each other, Leander." Grimes gripped Leander's arm. "Go back and tell them, Leander. Tell them at the newspapers...Save me Leander. Save me...."
Cheever gives us Leander's thoughts: "He could not help Grimes: he could not, he realized when the bus approached St. Botolphs and he saw a sign, VISIT THE S.S TOPAZ, THE ONLY FLOATING GIFT SHOPPE IN NEW ENGLAND...." A beautiful piece of existential writing, wouldn't you say? Thanks.
Dennis Drabelle: Well, it's not the kind of thing I would throw away--Cheever was already a hero of mine when I wrote him. Interesting thing about the gift shop. At one point the Cheever family finances were in straitened condition, and to help out Cheever's mom opened a gift shop (I don't believe it floated, however). So he mined his family history for quite a bit of what goes on in The Chronicle.
The light touch of Cheever in The chronicle
brought to mind Yeats' line:
... the apple never pry
lest we lose our adam eve and I. A certain innocence and distance from human beings is
a good thing.
Dennis Drabelle: Could you explain a bit further?
Dennis Drabelle: I should probably defend my choice of Cheever as the greatest American story writer a bit more. He devoted himself to the story form more than anyone else with the possible exception of Welty. He had a great range in the form, much wider than Hemingway's and O'Connor's (though perhaps if she had lived longer, she might have extended herself). His prose, to my ear, is peerless.
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