Redemption According to Cheever
WHEN, in John Cheever’s new novel, Falconer,* Ezekiel Farragut’s impossibly beautiful wife Marcia returns from three weeks in Rome with her lover, Maria Lippincott Hastings Guiglielmi, she at first wants nothing to do with Ezekiel. Though a fire is burning and flowers “gleam” to welcome her home, she answers his erotic advances by putting her thumbs in her ears, wagging her fingers, and making “a loud farting sound with her tongue.” Farragut recalls-recalls years later, when he is in jail for murder-that it took her “about ten days to come around,” and then they had intercourse “after a cocktail party and before a dinner.” Afterward:
He followed her into the bathroom and sat on the shut toilet seat while she washed her back with a brush. “I forgot to tell you,” he said. “Liza sent us a wheel of Brie.” “That’s nice,” she said, “but you know what? Brie gives me terribly loose bowels.” He hitched up his genitals and crossed his legs. “That’s funny,” he said. “It constipates me.” That was their marriage then-not the highest paving of the stair, the clatter of Italian fountains, the wind in the alien olive trees, but this: a jay-naked male and female discussing their bowels.
The last sentence unmistakably bears the stylistic signature of John Cheever. No other writer would have chosen this ridiculously human moment to remind his readers of a poem by T. S. Eliot out of Dante (“the highest paving of the stair”), or of the romantic circumstances associated with other, more ideal Roman holidays. Needless to say, the implicit contrast is not favorable to the contemporary world. The contrast says: those must have been great love affairs they had in the Renaissance, unless the poets lie-but alas, Connecticut, how low you’ve sunk. By beating his contemporaries over the head in this way with his vision of a sublime classicism their lives do not possess, Cheever the satirist has earned a reputation for a rather aggressive nostalgia: what one finds in such a bitter and ebullient suburban chronicle as Bullet Park. In his softer moods he is, like Eliot indeed, or like Robert Lowell, a poet mourning the fallen world in the late afternoon of New England high culture.
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