A WRITER'S WIT
Give me a dozen such heartbreaks, if that would help me to lose a couple of pounds.
Born January 28, 1873
A Literary Hero
I used to sneer at the Library of America covers when I saw them at the bookstores: black with the author’s photograph featured across the cover, a signature font used to depict the author’s name—I was under the impression they were just cheap reprints. But having read Cheever’s Wapshot novels for the second time in three years, I find the editions to be enlightening, well-edited, and a bargain. For $31.50 I was able to get all five of Cheever’s novels: $6.30 apiece. Each LOA edition offers so much more: scholarly editing, in this case by Bruce Bailey, noted Cheever scholar and author of Cheever: A Life (see my reading journal for 2009); a chronology of Cheever’s life; and notes that gloss Cheever’s allusions to past events, historical and literary, everything from how St. Botolphs resembles "various towns around the south shore of Massachusetts, where Cheever grew up" to what the G. A. R. is (Grand Army of the Republic) (925).
Cheever uses a very sly but clever point-of-view in which readers believe they are witnessing a third-person narrative until they see the word “we” and it shifts to first-person plural for a sentence or two: “Looking back at the village we might put ourselves into the shoes of a native son (with a wife and family in Cleveland) coming home for some purpose—a legacy or a set of Hawthorne or a football sweater—and swinging through the streets in good weather what would it matter that the blacksmith shop was now an art school?” (16). Funny that Cheever should mention Hawthorne—because he is another author who employs this method (in The Scarlet Letter), as if the speaker is the author peeking out from his sheaves to draw us in, or is it an unnamed resident of St. Botolphs luring readers into this long, long tale that will cover two tomes before it is finished? Readers feel as if they are in cahoots with Cheever, peering over a valley to see what the story is all about. And the method is quite effective.
The thirty-seven chapters seem, at times, to fit together incidentally. The novel is largely linear though some chapters seem out of order. Cheever might write about one character—Honora, the spinster cousin, for example—and then not mention her until many chapters later. She appears throughout both novels, the child of a long lineage of Wapshots, but by the end of The Wapshot Scandal, she is an eccentric dowager who’s time to die has arrived. Cheever seems to have a feel for the whole of humanity, never judging his characters—almost as if he himself has at one time or another been inside the skin each one of them. Male. Female. Old. Young. Smart. Thick. Heterosexual. Homo. Sexually active. Not. Drunk. Sober.
Cheever, John - The Wapshot Scandal
This novel seems to be more developed in many ways than the Chronicle, Cousin Honora particularly. Seems that for years, both as a Libertarian and as one who doesn’t care, she fails to pay her federal income taxes. In Chapter XVII she solves the problem by withdrawing all her money from the bank and fleeing to Italy. The chapter is a pleasant stand-alone narrative that makes a great short story, one of Cheever’s greatest gifts. On board she befriends a young man who turns out to be a stowaway. When she catches him stealing her money, she attempts to use her great gift of gab to talk him out of it. When that action fails, she strikes him on the head with a lamp and drags him into the corridor. She leaves to find help, but when she returns the man’s body has disappeared. She’s positive she’s killed him, but later as she debarks the ship, she spots him with another of the ship’s matrons. The chapter begins and ends with Honora blowing the ship’s circuit breakers by plugging in her antiquated curling iron. Is Cousin Honora too much for the world, blowing circuits wherever she goes, forging her way as does an icebreaker in the north Atlantic? Seems so, and such a quality makes her a delicious character (she might even be a distant relative of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge).
As the Chronicle was otherwise about Leander Wapshot and his wife Sarah, Scandal is largely about their sons, Moses and Coverly, and Moses’s wife Melissa and Coverly’s wife Betsey. The novel seems to limn the Wapshots as typical New Englanders (mostly British or Scottish stock): aloof, fiercely independent, and as eccentric as they come. Yet the Wapshots are softies, too, never really hurting or maiming one another or their fellow citizens. Cheever can’t seem to kill off his characters unless they die of natural causes, as Cousin Honora does near the close of the novel, returning to the United States—knowing she, as the daughter of missionaries, has lived a most fulfilling life. The novel ends with the reappearance of the first-person narrator, and I can’t for the life of me figure out who is speaking. Cheever? An anonymous Botolphsian? God? Someone tell me, please.
WEDNESDAY: MORE LAS VEGAS PHOTOS