The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, by John Cheever
The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.
by John Cheever.
Harper. 185 pp. $3.00.
In these polished, bittersweet stories, John Cheever is writing (as he has done over a long period in the New Yorker) about the fretfulness and decline of heart in middle-class people of middle years. Though he doesn’t regard the suburbs as a happy place, he nevertheless invests his refugees from the city with a glow of Arcadian health they never could have hoped for on the fringes of Central Park. A Shady Hill matron can “Have the skis repaired. Book a tennis court. Buy the wine and groceries for the monthly dinner of the Societé Gastronomique du Westchester Nord. Look up some definitions in Larousse. Attend a League of Women Voters Symposium on sewers. . . . Type two and a half pages of her article on the early novels of Henry James. . .” and lie in her husband’s arms from eleven till twelve. Ladies do not lose their bounce, and Cheever is ready to believe men will not lose their visionary gleam under the dominion of the garden, the PTA, and the commuting train. The rainbow comes and goes, he insists, in Shady Hill as in the more various universe.
Yet against the wholesome stageprops of dogs prancing through the tomato vines and small girls scratching with sticks in the gravel, there could not be a more dismal series of events than those in The Housebreaker of Shady Hill. A husband frozen by bland domesticity falls in love with a young babysitter and is advised to turn to woodwork for therapy. The life of an undistinguished business man is threatened by a timid, unstable secretary whom he fired to avoid being reminded of an evening’s intimacy with her. A woman commits adultery out of a passing sympathy for a neighbor snubbed at a Village Council meeting. “O Youth and Beauty!” the characters in Cheever’s stories are constantly mourning, as they cower beneath the assault of age on their ego and vitality.
One would expect the teller of these tales of chilly and vexatious marriage, of the sorrows of gin and mindless gregariousness, to be burning with curiosity as to what could be so deeply thwarting in a life that nurtures the outward graces. Why should the entire sense of wellbeing of the “housebreaker,” Jimmy Hake, hinge upon the recovery of his job for a parablendeum manufacturer? Why should Francis Weed, the country husband, have been deaf to the song of cardinals and robins till the late moment of his amorousness for the babysitter? Why, for that matter, should he so readily take woodtherapy in exchange for the girl who “put him into a relationship with the world that was mysterious and enthralling”? Would he not at least require some readjustment that touched his philosophy as well as his nerves?
If Mr. Cheever is not racked by these dilemmas, it is because he does not see the situation he describes as especially suburban or especially appalling. He is committed to a biologism that conceives of man in town or country as a relatively ignoble being: obtuse, pleasure-seeking, unable to resist his vanity. He believes few people to be either moral or powerful, and he therefore presents them always on the treadmill of their small expectations. In general, it seems to have been the fate of many deft and diverting American short story writers to deal in the minor distresses—embarrassment, distaste, melancholia—and to back away from love, death, and sorrow. James Agee, writing about a Noel Coward film, spoke of “certain witty, sad, able, and fastidious men” who defend their essential sentimentality by retreating to the fort of taste and regard for form.
This is the company to which Cheever belongs when he, a perfectionist in his own style, takes imperfection and discontent to be a natural element for other men to live in. Like most cynics he can turn, at some very slight stimulus to his senses, into a sentimentalist who must represent things as being much sweeter than they are. Whenever he gets the chance, he smuggles an elegant compensation into his bored suburb. A man may be presented entirely in the context of liquor and servant troubles, as in the story, The Sorrows of Gin, yet we leave him listening for the sound of an imaginary Alpine Glockenspiel and seeming “to smell the salt air in the churches of Venice.” The parablendeum executive can also measure out his life in daubs of romance: “We have a nice house with a garden and a place outside for cooking meat, and on summer nights, sitting there with the kids and looking into the front of Christina’s dress as she bends over to salt the steaks, or just gazing at the lights in Heaven, I am thrilled as I am thrilled by more dangerous pursuits, and I guess this is what is meant by the pain and sweetness of life.”
No one could object if this image of sex at the barbecue were a hearty Rabelaisian touch, but it is only one more stir of Cheever’s wistful amalgam of feelings. He cannot separate pain from sweetness, poetry from housekeeping, any more than a Sunday Supplement cook can keep mayonnaise off the avocado. If one plans to enjoy the bourgeois blessings, it makes more sense to take them on their own terms which are materialist and confining, not adventurous. Why not gracefully admit that one has, after all, been talking prose all one’s life? But the suburbanites of Shady Hill never give themselves fully to their comfortable world, just as Cheever never wholeheartedly affirms the suburban values of the 1950’s. Some interior struggle is always going on, he suggests, throwing over each exhausted partygoer one or another halo borrowed from some richer or larger existence: the country husband is assigned to woodwork, but with the consciousness that “It is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” These stories are based on the sophisticated assumption that life must always be full of mixture and compromise; they never pause to consider that there are some crucial issues on which it is wisest not to compromise at all.