Park Backwards is Krap and Cheever is a Funny Last Name

John Cheever’s Bullet Park (1967) won the Pulitzer Prize. About which fact, who am I to comment? It was written to introduce the topic, as a fact that might also validate the reading of the novel and give some credible context.

Anyway, here’s what happens: a mysterious dude named Hammer moves into Bullet Park (a suburb of NYC), meets a quiet man named Nailles (who has a son that goes through a depression), and then interacts with Nailles’ son. To inform you of the interaction would be to report the climax of the novel. So that sounds like a really brief, uneventful plot, right? Well, it is. The book’s narrative action isn’t full. But the novel nevertheless persists as a page-turner.

Rather than hooking the reader with its plot, the novel seamlessly introduces and then penetrates practically each character within the course of its reporting of the narrative proper. This is to say that we meet someone and then are told—again let me stress that this telling is consistently seamless—a history about that person, which explains who the character is and usually why they are committing the action at hand.

So I think Cheever really succeeds with the real truth that everyone has a story, rich and unique. But the problem is that none of the characters are good.

In Bullet Park, as in everywhere else the novel’s characters travel, people are fundamentally vapid and materialistic and narcissistic. And that’s only true when the characters actually choose to act. Most of the time, they just go along with whatever decision is easiest, as determined by their environment—like a woman who would make a cuckold of her husband but various odd coincidences prevent her from it. Usually the easiest decision is indecision and acquiescence to an understood way that things should be, like they were before, like we were taught.

Cheever, with two (it could be argued three) characters, investigates depression and a lack of fulfillment with the kind of world he builds, but these characters are either greatly thwarted or miraculously (read: inconclusively) cured.

Now again, the novel, at the micro-/page-to-page-level, is pretty great. Cheever’s a wonderful writer, with real talent for description and quick characterization. And he broaches some terrific techniques—that could be classified as postmodern; like, here’s the first line of the novel: “Paint me a small railroad station then, ten minutes before dark.” This introduction clearly calls one’s attention to the artifice of fiction writing. Again, mid-novel, Cheever begins to comment on the way we talk about traveling, seemingly taking writers to task, or at least calling attention to techniques of storytelling: “We speak of travel—world travel—as if it were the most natural condition. ‘Mr. X,’ we read, ‘then traveled from Boston to Kitzbühel.’ How far this is from the truth!”

But when we step back to inspect the novel from a macro-level, the worldview of Mr. Cheever—a man who lived longer than I have and wrote more than I have—is hopefully, like some of our turns of phrase, “far…from the truth.”


Review: James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain

James Baldwin’s first novel, like most first novels, is considered “semi-autobiographical.” But Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) should be regarded with as much reverence as you afford anything that holds truth—be it non-fiction or fiction or poetry or scripture.

The structure of the novel is its most remarkable aspect. The action occurs over one overnight session of fervent prayer, wherein we also receive the stories of the main character’s mother, father and aunt, each affected in different ways by their understanding of God and religion, their experiences with racism and family, and their personal discovery; all three (whose sections are titled “[Name]’s Prayer”) are sort of beautifully built through recollections but all reach a pitch of newness and resolve over the course of their prayer.

Even still, John’s realization of his identity—across those very same arenas, i.e., family, society, spirituality, etc.—is the note on which the novel ends, in a properly novelistic thrust of its last line: “’I’m ready,’ John said, ‘I’m coming. I’m on my way.’”

Baldwin was a great writer, and his skills are on display throughout the book, which reminds me—maybe because I read him first, or because Baldwin, writing in the fifties, couldn’t avoid being influenced by him—of Faulkner (or even Toni Morrison). However, some of the book became a trudge. But this isn’t to discourage its reading. I can’t quite explain why—except to hazard a guess: I’ve read much like this book—books that, I imagine, influenced it and books that have almost certainly been influenced by it.

The beauty of the book for me is in its attempt to formulate words (mostly metaphorical and vivid) that communicate characters’ explorations of faith, and the events surrounding and forcing those explorations. The language is simple, elegant and clear throughout; the characters interestingly complex; the structure intriguingly compelling; but the action was sometimes stiff.

Here’s what I can say: Baldwin sometimes seems to settle (and this is weird if most of the events are indeed autobiographical) for the easy event, but his characters’ reflection on the event is always difficult and brilliant.

Read it—if you’re American.

Mr. Waugh Makes Us Laugh

Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948) shares a young British poet’s hapless situation in Hollywood. Dennis Barlow penned his one successful volume while serving in the war, but inspiration isn’t so easy to come by these days. So he works at Happier Hunting Ground, a pet cemetery.

The novel is about death, in more ways than animals. The first character who speaks dies shortly thereafter. Sir Francis—like Dennis, a transplanted Englishman—was abruptly fired from a studio and then hangs himself. So Dennis, left to take care of his friend’s corpse, goes to a real cemetery, Whispering Glades, where he is entranced by the production, the commercialization (and capitalization) of the dead. He hopes, at first, to take some of their more successful innovations back to Happier Hunting Ground.

But he falls in love with a cosmetician at Whispering Glades, and here’s our love story—full of deceit, envy, another man and death.

The novel delivers a few laughs, maybe like one out-loud guffaw a chapter (for this reader). And it attempts to comment on capitalism and death and materialism, but alas in this progressive age, these ideas have mostly been subsumed in our monolithic cultural attitude—not reckoned with, just dismissed as something purportedly dealt with, and because it (the knowledge of our materialism) is everywhere, we can easily recognize it. And in Mr. Waugh’s way, to apply the materialism to such a bleak subject (a loved one’s death), that comical distance allows us to view the point from afar, without any personal investment or feeling, so we can laugh at these characters because they share nothing with us readers.

But that is the way of satire, sometimes, I guess. However, there are plenty of reasons to read this book. It’s short, funny, and spattered with inspections of the artistic temperament (because, as you’ll recall, our protagonist is a poet).