Authors: John Cheever
WITH A FOREWORD BY
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Epub ISBN 9781407072777
Published by Vintage 1998
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Copyright © John Cheever 1959, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964
Foreword copyright © Dave Eggers 2003
John Cheever has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
Six parts of this book appeared in
The New Yorker
and one in
and the author is grateful to the editors for their permission to reprint
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First published in Great Britain by Harper in 1964 First published by Vintage in 1998
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THE WAPSHOT SCANDAL
John Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1912, and went to school at Thayer Academy in South Braintree. He is the author of seven collections of stories and five novels. His first novel,
The Wapshot Chronicle
, won the 1958 National Book Award. In 1965 he received the Howells Medal for Fiction from the National Academy of Arts and Letters and in 1978 he won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Shortly before his death in 1982 he was awarded the National Medal for Literature.
ALSO BY JOHN CHEEVER
The Wapshot Chronicle
Oh What a Paradise It Seems
The Way Some People Live
The Enormous Radio
The Housebreaker of Shady Hill
Some People, Places and Things
That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel
The Brigadier and the Golf Widow
The World of Apples
The Stories of John Cheever
The Letters of John Cheever
(edited by Benjamin Cheever)
All the characters in this work are fictional, as is much of the science.
A Foreword by a non-Cheever-scholar and infrequent reader of forewords:
I don’t know how certain books become canonical and others don’t. I know nothing about how these things work, what committees are formed, consulted, and what powers they wield, but I picture the process like a Pachinko. The book, playing the part of the silver lead ball – stay with me here – is sent through the top of the machine – the literary-cultural-academic machine – and it tinkles back and forth, subjected to popular and critical reaction, to revisionist theory, to changes in taste over a period of time, and eventually, if all goes well, it scores some points and stays in play. (I guess maybe I should have used a pinball metaphor. Your thoughts? Send them to 826 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110. Thank you in advance.)
For whatever reason, Cheever’s stories, which are not superior to this novel and its predecessor, are remembered better than the
, but there is no clear way to explain why. Did the first
book not win the National Book Award? It did win that. Are these novels lacking in scope? Not a bit. Are they not representative of the human condition at a juncture in time? They are. Are they convincing? They are. Are they beautiful? They are so filled with love that it’s hard to believe that a man wrote these sentences, and not some kind of freakish winged book-writing angel-beast or something. And finally: Are these just short stories stretched to novel length? Not at all.
The Wapshot Scandal
is very much a fully realized novel, and not only is it masterfully paced and exquisitely written but it’s also adherent to the best aspect of the novel form: its willingness to be big, messy, sprawling, and meandering. Though Cheever is never out of control – his command of his always perfect sentences and paragraphs is uninterrupted – he does make some very loose decisions.
is not tidy, and few if any of the characters come out, in the end, changed in any fundamental way. One dies, and one begins drinking heavily, but otherwise there are no great and articulated epiphanies. Best of all, a number of secondary characters are introduced and developed and then never find their way back into the narrative. The book does not end in a way that would be satisfying to readers expecting closure, and this makes the book not craft but art.
That must be what some of us fear with Cheever, or with what we assume about Cheever: that his work will be ‘exquisite’ or ‘carefully crafted.’ (And I do believe I used the word ‘exquisite’ just a short while ago. And for that I’m sorry.) That it’s of small scope but ‘masterful in style.’ Something like that – like a toy boat on a small man-made pond. But I think what this book, as one example, demonstrates, is that Cheever is the blessedly craziest and most passionate kind of artist. This book is a breathless burst of a thing, no matter how long it took to write (and I have no idea how long that was, though Cheever’s
is thought to have taken twenty years). However long it took – and that’s pretty much irrelevant, always –
is one of the most fluid and riveting things written in the last fifty years, and it, yes, it showcases Cheever’s ridiculously visceral feeling for the human animal.
The best books are hits of nitrous – you suck them in, they give you a warm wa-wa feeling for awhile, and when you’re done, you go looking for more. (That is, if you’re that sort of person, a parking-lot person, eating a grilled cheese with one hand and looking for a miracle with the other. And I am not that person, except one time, in Durham, North Carolina, c. 1991.) The best books, I want to say, relight the world; they take the flaccid balloon of time, place, and character and breathe into it until the thing is about to pop. And this much is true: Cheever has amazing lungs.
Here’s an example. It takes place when Melissa, the somewhat disillusioned but lusty wife of Moses Wapshot, is at the florist and overhears another customer ordering flowers for a dead relative:
‘I guess I’m the closest she has left,’ he said confusedly, and Melissa, waiting for her roses, felt a premonition of death. She must die — she must be the subject of some such discussion in a flower shop, and close her eyes forever on a world that distracted her with its beauty. The image, hackneyed and poignant, that to her was of life as a diversion, a festival from which she was summoned by the secret police of extinction, when the dancing and the music were at their best. I do not want to leave, she thought. I do not ever want to leave.
This is of course how we feel while reading
The Wapshot Scandal
– it’s so good in here we don’t want to leave, even though the lives of these people are not, at all, intrinsically interesting. Maybe only Cheever can acknowledge the mundanity of suburban existence, keep his characters firmly rooted in the soil of that world, and yet give them souls that soar. Every major character in
is bored in some fundamental way, and instead of moping or griping or justfalling apart – the m.o. of nearly all of our American suburban heroes – they act boldly against the quietly oppressive machinery around them. They flee the IRS, they philander in the most breathtaking ways, they feed Keats into a supercomputer, they give up everything they have, again and again.
As many of the most staid-seeming of
’s standard-bearers leave St. Botolphs, the book follows them through the Southwest and Europe, and Cheever’s perceptions are no less acute when he’s trailing their progress around the world. Early on, we’re introduced to an IRS agent named Norman Johnson, who is about to change the venerable Honora Wapshot’s life irrevocably and send her on a journey of her own. But when we meet him, he is staying at a hotel in St. Botolph’s, and Cheever uses Johnson’s time there to elucidate the price of travel, setting the tone for all the wandering and searching to come:
[Johnson] was a traveler, familiar with the miseries of loneliness, with the violence of its sexuality, with its half-conscious imagery of highways and thruways like the projections of a bewildered spirit; with that forlorn and venereal limbo that must have flowed over the world before the invention of Venus, unknown to good and evil, ruled by pain.