I read a lot of junk fiction. Some of it is very good junk fiction, but I’ve never been much drawn to literature. I’ve never read Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, never read James Joyce. I tried Faulkner and didn’t get far. Got bogged down after the first hundred pages of Don Quixote and never went on with it.
Nonetheless, I have some good books on my shelves. As the occasional day manager of our monthly Friends of the Library used book sale, I have plenty of time to scrounge among the fiction tables, discreetly overlooking the Danielle Steel and Scott Turow, the Dan Brown and Andre Norton (of which there is usually a lot) and picking out, now and again, one of those books that I think someday I might want to read, or that I should read. For 50 cents for a hardback in decent condition, how can you go wrong?
Tonight, having finished re-reading John Gardner’s marvelous The Art of Fiction, I thought, well, Gardner talks extensively about literature, and that’s inspiring, but do I really know what he’s talking about? So I wandered into the den and picked up John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle. It’s one of those books that you know is highly thought of by knowledgeable people, and I have what appears to be a first edition, though not of much value to a collector, as the dust jacket is torn.
Having read more than 30 pages, I’m ready to deliver a verdict. This may seem risky, but I’m pretty sure that literature is like junk fiction in at least one respect: After 30 pages, you can form a reasonable guess as to what the author is up to. If you guess wrong, it’s because the author is falling down on the job.
What strikes me about The Wapshot Chronicle is that it’s fundamentally sentimental. Beautifully written, of course, but one has the feeling that it was written by a man who didn’t really understand life or people, and wished he did — a man who felt sure he was missing something, and didn’t know what it was.
From the copyright notice, it appears the novel was published in 1957. That was the year after the United States tested the first hydrogen bomb. It was the year Russia launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. A lot was going on in the years when Cheever was writing the book. But none of that gritty reality is allowed to creep into the first 30 pages. We’re introduced to a small New England town named St. Botolphs, near the coast, presumably not far from Boston — a town that seems lost in a time warp. The book begins with a rather down-home small-town Fourth of July parade. The setting could as easily be the 1930s as the 1950s. Someone sets off a firecracker under a horse that is drawing a flatbed float, and the horse bolts — but nobody is hurt.
We’re told, briefly, about several generations of the Wapshot family, “founded by Ezekiel Wapshot, who emigrated from England aboard the Arbella in 1630. Ezekiel settled in Boston, where he taught Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and gave lessons on the flute. He was offered a post in the Royal Government but he judiciously refused, establishing a family tradition of thoughtful regret….” The atmosphere of genteel regret is as thick as molasses. Whether any of it will prove to be thoughtful, I haven’t yet discovered.
In chapter 4, a young woman named Rosalie Young (in literature, names often give us hints about meaning) goes off for some afternoon sex on the beach with a man who is referred to by Cheever, coyly, only as “her date.” We’re not told his name, and of course that’s an omen, because at the end of the chapter he is speeding along a country road, misses a curve, and runs into an elm tree on the Wapshots’ property. He is killed. Rosalie isn’t. And in a subtle touch that may have seemed daring in 1957, the last sentence of the chapter in which this happens ends without a period: “The speed made Rosalie feel relaxed until she heard him swear and felt the car careen and bump into a field”
Cheever’s handling of the omniscient point of view is worthy of study. He occasionally addresses the reader directly and often provides information about people and events that are distant from the moment-to-moment narrative. I may keep reading, perhaps in the forlorn hope that one of the Wapshot boys will take a wrong turn and find himself in Arkham rather than St. Botolphs. But so much water has flowed under the bridge in the past seventy years that, looking back on this prose version of a Norman Rockwell painting, I can’t help feeling that Cheever is manipulating our emotions — possibly on purpose, or possibly because he doesn’t know any better.