Commentary Magazine

The Wapshot Scandal, by John Cheever

America Aglow

The Wapshot Scandal.
by John Cheever.
Harper & Row. 309 pp. $4.95.

In one of John Cheever's Shady Hill stories, a man comes home to his suburb after a plane trip. The plane has crashed in a field, but everyone has awesomely survived. The man enters his house in a sublime mood. He is even on time for dinner, but his wife is distracted and his children are squabbling. He tries to tell them he has escaped death; they go on selfishly eating and scolding. He has the sense that he is a secret angel, but-everything is just the same as always, and no one wants to notice.

Somewhere in the middle of The Wapshot Scandal, Coverly Wapshot is traveling on a plane. The talkative man sitting next to him begins to tell about a lighthouse he has rigged up on his front lawn. “Of course, some of the neighbors complain—you find clinkers in every gang—so I don't turn it on every night, but when we have people in to play cards or watch the television, I turn it on, and it looks beautiful.” Then thieves take over the plane, rob everyone, and the plane comes down in a field. All the passengers are arrested, and in the police station they have to fill out questionnaires that ask “Do you believe in the International Communist Conspiracy? Do you love your mother? . . . If you are a man, would you classify your sexual organs as being size 1,2, 3, or 4? . . . Do you believe John Foster Dulles is in Heaven? Hell? Limbo?” When Coverly is released, he tries to tell a cab driver about the plane robbery. But the driver only says, “Where to?”

Most of John Cheever's people, even the wicked ones, are wistful secret angels—like seraphim they have their errands and burdens, only nobody notices. That nobody ever notices is the real scandal of The Wapshot Scandal. It is, also, in a way, Cheever's own scandal as a writer.

The Wapshots of St. Botolphs, Mass., when we first met them in The Wapshot Chronicle, were the lucky inhabitants of our dream America, where it is always the cozy middle of the 19th century and brown photographs of skating ponds, Christmas choirs, Fourth of July parades, and cheerfully skinflint old cousins with names like Honora and Justine are made to overlap in the stereoscope of the memory. In those days, people noticed. Leander Wapshot initiated his sons Coverly and Moses into manhood by taking them, one at a time, to a lonely cabin on a hunting trip. The woods then were deep and unlittered. Everything was soft and sly with mystery, like Cheever's prose, and while there were deaths, there were no scandals.

But in the latest Wapshot novel the chief character is the 20th century, and now everything but Cheever's prose has deteriorated and grown corrupt. Coverly Wapshot and his tedious little wife Betsey are living in a secret imitation-suburbia-in-the-desert where everyone works for the Missile and neighbors war over garbage cans. Coverly sneaks some Keatsian vocabulary through the computer: in the valley of the shadow of the Missile out comes a poem. But no one notices. Meanwhile, in a genuine citizens' suburb called Proxmire Manor, Melissa, Moses Wapshot's wife, breaks a Commandment in the company of the downy boy from the grocery. But Moses, instead of taking notice, takes to drink. So does Cousin Honora, after the federal tax-collector catches her in Rome. (Honora never noticed the income tax.) She has tried suicide before exile, but what good is suicide when nobody notices it?

The book opens on Christmas Eve in St. Botolphs; it is the last time we shall see Cheever's archetypal New England port town symbolically intact. “In the dark, mixed clothing they had put on for the storm, the carolers looked uncommonly forlorn, but the moment they began to sing they were transformed . . . This instantaneous transformation of the company was thrilling, and Mr. Applegate [the local minister] felt his faith renewed, felt that an infinity of realized possibilities lay ahead of them, a tremendous richness of peace, a renaissance without brigands, an ecstasy of light and color, a kingdom! Or was this gin?” Suddenly the finger of irony has moved over the pretty picture, and we are, supposedly, transported to the true essences of modern things, where drunkenness solaces the minister, housewives in curlers like crowns fight over supermarket prizes, the missile-master turns out to be a child-beating monster, and the world is harder and more real than any idyllic caroling in St. Botolphs would suggest.

In moving The Wapshot Scandal away from St. Botolphs, Cheever appears to be confronting America-in-the-main for the first time. Hitherto he encountered it for us piecemeal: as a city in The Enormous Radio, as a suburb in The House-Breaker of Shady Hill, as a place to go to Europe from in Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel. But these were all collections of stories, and their momentary tender visions never pretended to be definitive. Further, the stories were about migrants—from apartment to apartment, from Shady Hill to Proxmire Manor, from America to Italy—and nomadry has its own laws. Migrants are expected to be nostalgic, if only for the last oasis.


But the America of The Wapshot Scandal is a land without oases, a land ruled by the secret Missile; it is no wonder that all the migrants are sick at heart for St. Botolphs. Christmas Eve in St. Botolphs is the touchstone of Cheever's America: look, he seems to cry, observe our golden beginnings—how far we have fallen from them! Once sent forth from St. Botolphs, the despoiled innocents lapse into militarism, adultery, fraud—Honora crossing the water to flee the tax man, Melissa and her grocery-boy living listlessly in Rome, Coverly thrown into anonymity under the terrible gantry towers, Moses wandering besotted. All this ruin of beauty and bravery Cheever treats as a kind of joke and/or abomination, just as though he really were a satirist. But he is not; he is, instead, a fantasist—who reproves the world he hates mostly by ignoring it. In its recent cover story on Cheever, Time points to the “demonic quality” in his “moral system,” but it's clear that if Cheever were Swift, Time would be more worried about him. Cheever loves Missile America far less than Time loves it, yet he never actually attacks. He only chides, and then indirectly, by holding up the golden age of old St. Botolphs as a model of what America ought really to be like.


Now it is on this myth of St. Botolphs that Cheever as social critic finally crashes. There wouldn't be much use in saying that America ought to be like St. Botolphs again, even if America had once been like St. Botolphs. But the fact is it never was; St. Botolphs is Cockaigne, Elysium, Utopia, and George Washington's cherry orchard, all in one. Nobody can inherit it because nobody had a grandfather who lived there, and to take St. Botolphs as a touchstone of a living society is to raise a tombstone to any possibility of satirizing that society. St. Botolphs cannot be satirized because it is no more than a mellowly lit color-card in one of those Victorian magic lanterns. But Cheever can look at nothing in society without drawing a halo around it with his golden crayon; he transmutes his America into an enormous, generalized St. Botolphs—and then, playing satirist, scolds the residue that—like Melissa's adultery when it stales—resists wholesale Botolphsizing. The curlers on the supermarket ladies are seen as crowns because Cheever is willing to change hags into princesses, and even the brooding Missile itself is finally made to give in to Botolphsization. Confronted by vulgarity and evil, Cheever takes a cautious step backward, shuts his eyes, waves his fastidious wand, and ping! vulgarity and evil are all at once redeemed by a secret beauty—“the abandoned buildings with the gantries above them had a nostalgic charm,” he writes of the weapons site. Ping!

And exactly this sentimental disposition in the Wapshots and in his rendering of them is what Cheever himself seems not to have noticed. His ironic exposures add up only to a lightweight comic deceptive-ness: Dr. Cameron, the missile-master, was born under the name Bracciani; the delightful stowaway whom Honora befriends tries to rob her; Coverly, pretending to teach the maid how to make the vacuum cleaner go back and forth, instead goes back and forth with the maid. But these are hollow spoofs. The larger deception implicit in his novel—the victory of supermarket and hardware culture over our better hopes—is lost finally in Cheever's hesitancy to push his irony to the hurting point, and to push right through the shield of his fantasy. It is not only that he is afraid to hurt his characters by blotting the St. Botolphs dazzle from their eyes, and letting them notice things as they are. He is afraid to take the grave deep breath needed to turn off the phony lighthouse on the lawn and notice them himself.

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