Commentary Magazine


The Enormous Radio and Other Stories, by John Cheever; Some Faces in the Crowd, by Budd Schulberg

New England and Hollywood

The Enormous Radio and Other Stories.
By John Cheever.
Funk and Wagnalls. 237 pp. $3.50.

Some Faces in the Crowd.
By Budd Schulberg.
Random House. 308 pp. $3.00.

 

The modern short story ranges from the over-inflated bromide, the kind of thing the slicks and certain of the ladies’ magazines do so neatly, to the highly concentrated, short novel, complex and ambigious, which we find sometimes in the little magazines and in The New Yorker. The extremes of this gamut may be seen in the collections of Budd Schulberg and John Cheever. Where Schulberg elaborates into a full story the commonplace of a child’s discovery of the world’s untrustworthiness (which never, in any case, occurs in a moment, as Schulberg with a Hollywood sense of economy would have us believe), Cheever tosses off, in part of a sentence, a far more perceptive comment about a neglected child’s premature instinct of self-protection: “[The child and the nurse] quarreled a good deal when they were alone, and they quarreled like adults, with a cunning knowledge of each other’s frailties.”

Schulberg, the son of a Hollywood producer and born and raised there, seems congenitally unable to see the world except through the special lenses developed by Hemingway (the sentimentalized prize fight and the brutalized deep-sea fishing stories) or Fitzgerald (the beautiful rich girl with a suicidal drive); when he writes of Hollywood it is with the glib cynicism the movies have perfected for self-portraits. His capacity for originality in observation or tone is so meager, so constricted or so undeveloped, that minor perceptions emerge as momentous revelations and obvious flourishes of style betray an excessive labor. Cheever, a product of the Hebraic New England conscience, implacable as a Kafkaesque judge, cuts through the layers of tawdry pretense and elaborate alibi while arraigning his defendants—all of them guilty, often as vaguely and as profoundly as Kafka’s people—of some breach against the mysterious deity of honest grace and lightness and self-understanding. Cheever’s intelligence is startling and disturbing in its cold superiority as he bares a human problem to the bone, but his fine and controlled compassion is deep and thoughtful and genuine. Schulberg can only give us in the end pale reproductions of the usual contempt for the bully, the anti-Negro sadist, the cheap entertainment celebrity; the stimulus is only of a memory of a distant response, long ago buried in the store of attitudes we take for granted.

Schulberg dislikes Hollywood, from which he is a loudly proclaimed expatriate. But his antipathy is marked by an adolescent malice, an adolescent narrowness of concentration, an adolescent’s assumption of a pose he knows will get admiration: the big-shot producer about to be fired, being polished by a collection of unpleasant creatures in a night club who want him to get them into the movies; the simpleminded braggart with the delusion of the grandness of Hollywood who talks himself into a studio job and then out again, and ends up as a barker on a sightseeing tour; the fired studio producer who goes out to buy his children presents one Christmas in order to keep alive the fantasy of a bountiful Santa Claus when his former stars and directors fail to show up.

The most ambitious story, a long account of a know-nothing entertainer who gains a dangerously large following, is nowhere as successful as What Makes Sammy Run? Schulberg wrote about Sammy with the fierce and pitiless understanding of involvement and of a certain self-identification; there was no condescension. His portrait of Lonesome Rhodes, “Your Arkansas Traveller,” is fashionably supercilious and distant; his shifting of responsibility for the hackneyed attitudes onto the smart-alecky girl who tells the story, a transparent device, betrays the limit, not to say the shabbiness, even of the aim: “blame her for the shallowness, not me”—but who cares about her self-conscious, superficial handling of the material:

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Cheever’s bête noir is New York City. It is a place that has the quality of hell, almost literally at some moments: “They sat together with their children through the sooty twilights, when the city to the south burns like a Bessemer furnace, and the air smells of coal, and the wet boulders shine like slag, and the Park itself seems like a strip of woods on the edge of a coal town.” The havoc the city works on genuine human beings is Cheever’s theme. The insanities connected with city life are simultaneously harrowing and hilarious. Perhaps the most moving story in the book, “O City of Broken Dreams,” is also the funniest. A small-town bus driver and his family are lured to the big city by an irresponsible, fancy-talking Broadway producer who has read two acts of a play the driver has written. While the driver is waiting for an executive in a Radio City office, the secretary offers to sell him fresh farm eggs or costume jewelry wholesale; the unpaid butler of a Park Avenue establishment trails a bloody bandage from his finger over the carpets as he berates his employer who, at the moment, is occupied in a floating crap game in Harlem.

At first reading, one comes away with a sense that Cheever’s characters are sunk in a mire of unrelieved hopelessness. A New England farmer and daughter are permanently and callously corrupted into hard-bitten eccentricity by a New York Communist couple who come to the area one year to help lead a strike. The wife of a placid marriage one day finds her radio tuning in the other apartments in her building; the dirty private activity of her neighbors overpowers her and detonates the buried bomb of secrets in her own life. An unhappy couple obsessively retrace the early events of their marriage in a forlorn attempt to recapture the feelings that originally motivated them.

But the volume as a whole yields the secret of coping with the eternal imminence of disaster which is living. In three stories Cheever transcends the bleakness of Kafka; the other stories, then, must be read as demonstrations not of what Cheever believes life must inevitably be, but of what it should not be, of what we should fight against it becoming. “The Pot of Gold” concludes with the husband turning to his family for richness and away from the mad schemes for success which have driven him for so long. In “The Cure,” a husband separated from his wife is slowly disintegrating in his loneliness, succumbing to a series of personal horrors in the improbable and therefore all the more macabre settings of Madison Avenue and suburbia, until he goes back to her and his children to save himself. In “Goodbye, My Brother,” the first story, Cheever movingly attacks the narrow-minded enemies of instinct and self-fulfillment. Salvation lies in meeting the unavoidable horror head on, and engaging it with one’s best talents, not obscuring it or fleeing from it.

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It is no accident, of course, that Cheever should be so much more Hebraically serious, both in his observation and in his prophecy, than Schulberg. Cheever, by reason of his New England background, has breathed into his system that Biblical concentration on the moral nature of reality, on the inescapable essence of a word or an act, which we find in Hawthorne, Melville, and James; and his good sense has kept him from beclouding his vision with what Steven Marcus criticized in his recent survey of the contemporary American short story, the distorted Puritan search for the overall structural connections in events. Cheever’s great advantage over Schulberg is that he has not had to overcome the effect of a wrenching discontinuity with the past.

It is painful to contrast Schulberg with Cheever, for his intentions are so clearly to achieve the urbane subtlety, the sense of self-identity, the intelligent and easy maturity, which are Cheever’s—simply by inheritance, as it were. Schulberg’s solemnity in every story, which equalizes the trivial and the portentous; the impatient variety of content; the attempts to avert the obvious by meaningless twists and confusions of plot (“The One He Called Winnie,” about a beautiful Negro child’s nurse who doesn’t marry a white man either because she is passionately warned by her father not to, or because the little white boy she is in charge of needs her, is especially exasperating), are signs of a real but halting and bewildered seriousness. His instinctive smartness and earnest ambition show through even the most trivial of the stories. You can feel him groping all the time: for the subject which will illuminate some hidden and essential truth like a burst of fireworks, for the manner which will proudly demonstrate his confident wisdom and control. But his best story, about the conflict in an Irish family between the values of education and the glittering fame of the boxing world, is merely superbly competent slick-magazine stuff; one or two pieces, flat conversations of the kind usually but inexactly described as New Yorker -ish, are curiously simple-minded and just underwritten where they try to be ambiguous.

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Schulberg is another of the Jewish writers like Weidman and Shaw whose work has skimmed close to the solid shores of genuine American literary achievement. These writers, in a sense which can serve only as an initial, temporary excuse, have been incapacitated from realizing their promise by the lack of a serious and active artistic tradition, something they give hints of recognizing; but instead of seeking one, as, say, Lionel Trilling has done, in the depths of history and in the classical values, instead of dealing with the lack as part of the process of developing an authentic idiom, they have casually gone for their guidance to the immediately popular culture heroes. Schulberg is stricken with a special disability. The Jews who journeyed West to make movies might better have remained in New York to make dresses: the ancient Jewish (and broadly European) notion of the glory of the senses and of the intellect had been lost to them, and, of course, could not be used or passed on. Schulberg, we guess from the vague bravado of his self-exile from Hollywood, came East because of a nagging sense of the inadequacy of the movie center’s ideal. But he has substituted one hollow idol for another, Hollywood rebellion for “Hollywood,” both cut out of the same pattern; he has been conditioned by the very air he has swallowed to respond in tediously familiar, mechanically limited reflexes, no matter how hard he tries to make them appear different. There is a somber quality about the book, for it reveals that, however disquieting and respectable the prompting of Mr. Schulberg’s urge to escape may be, he doesn’t know where to go—except to more of the same.

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