Tower of Power once had a hit song titled “What Is Hip?” The line I remember is, “What’s hip today may become passe.” (With an accent over the e there at the end.)
I’m now 60 pages into The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever, and I’m about to bail out. Never mind that it’s a meandering plotless mess. Quite a lot of literature is meandering and plotless. And never mind that the writing is often shot through with lambent rays of brilliance. No, what alienates me is that Cheever is coy. In 1957, when the book was published, his coyness may have seemed clever or charming. Sixty years later, it grates.
On page 60, Leander Wapshot and his teenage son Coverly are on their way to the village fair.
They stopped in Grimes’ bakery, where Leander ate a plate of baked beans. “Baked beans, the musical fruit,” the old waitress said. “The more you eat, the more you toot.” The mild crudeness of the joke had kept it fresh for her. Walking up Water Street toward the fairgrounds Leander let several loud farts. It was a summer evening so splendid that the power it had over their senses….
There you have it — an embarrassing, and embarrassingly bad, joke, suitable at best for a comic book and probably so shopworn even in 1957 that a comic book editor would have red-penciled it, and Cheever not only drags it into his narrative but attempts to use it in an ironic and symbolic way. This is apparently what passed (if you’ll forgive the term) for literature in 1957.
I gritted my teeth and soldiered on past the fart joke for a couple more pages. Leander and Coverly have gone to the burlesque tent, where a girl (actually a young woman, but in 1957 any writer would have referred to her as a girl, so we’ll give Cheever a free pass on that one) takes off her skirt and dances naked. He hasn’t bothered to mention her removing her top, so we’re left to guess about exactly what “naked” means, but that’s a detail. What stopped me dead was this:
Then the girl picked the cap off a farm hand in the front row and did something very dirty. Coverly walked out of the tent.
Is it just me, or is it really quite difficult to imagine what a naked girl might do with a farm hand’s hat that would qualify as “very dirty”? To be sure, censorship was alive and well in 1957, but surely we deserve at least a broad hint about what the girl did with the hat. But Cheever’s worst sin is this: He does not tell us why Coverly walked out of the tent. The boy has had some sort of profound reaction to the “very dirty” thing the girl did, whatever it was — but Cheever is too coy to tell us what that reaction was. Only after a couple more pages do we get hints that Coverly was aroused and either is masturbating or is trying to avoid masturbating.
The boys took their mother to church at eleven and Coverly got vehemently to his knees but he was not halfway through his first prayer when the perfume of the woman in the pew ahead of him undid all his work of mortification [diving into cold water] and showed him that the literal body of Christ Church was no mighty fortress, for although the verger had shut the oak doors and the only windows open were not big enough for a child to enter by, the devil, so far as Coverly was concerned, came and went, sat on his shoulder, urged him to peer down the front of Mrs. Harper’s dress….
Adolescent shame over sexual urges is, for better or worse, an important (though not a very interesting) part of growing up in America. But Cheever’s handling of the incident is as adolescent, and as shame-filled, as the incident itself. Is this a case of literary imitative form? I doubt it. Of the need not to attract the attentions of the censor? It seems unlikely. No, Cheever is just being coy.
As a footnote, the coyness can also be seen in the time period in which the story is set. We seem to be in some sort of timeless present — events beyond the borders of the town are never mentioned — but in the burlesque tent, “Then the girls retired, one of them to crank a phonograph and the other to dance.” There’s the answer, in black and white: a hand-cranked phonograph. I’d have to look up the history on that technology, but it sure as heck wasn’t in prominent use in 1957. No, we’re being hand-cranked.