Cheever’s Ambivalent Americana

July 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve only just started reading Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle and so many descriptions in the book, of a retired New England small town, have a strange approach to their Americana evocations. When Cheever conjures up the summer and the breeze and the Old World peace of a historical town, I think his aim is always to qualify it in an ironic way by mixing in present elements — unsavory things like coal or garbage or sexual infidelity. So it feels like every description in the book is torn between a summery boardwalk-y Americana style and the need for some kind of contemporary realism rooted in seedy things. Here’s an example, from the first page:

The smells of these offices — the smell of dental preparations, floor oil, spittoons and coal gas — mingled in the downstairs hallway like an aroma of the past.

Cheever coalesces these specific details — a dentist’s office, spittoons, and such — into “an aroma of the past”. But those things aren’t an aroma of the past! He’s tried with a false poetic swoop to turn those scents and images instantly into a lofty small-town impression.

Now maybe this is all part of Cheever’s plan — to create a psuedo-Americana style tainted by his character’s weaknesses and his town’s failings. But that leaves him in a curious stylistic position, because he seems to want to infuse all of his descriptions with some measure of summery gilding, so it’s not clear, after reading a long enough stretch of his prose, where the irony ends and where the dreaminess begins. And at least in the form Cheever’s style gives them, those two moods don’t mix well.

Here’s another example in the early going, a description of the Wapshot patriarch’s boat, where it’s not clear whether the prose’s dreaminess is ironically mushy or just mushy:

The timbers of the old launch seemed held together by the brilliance and transitoriness of summer and she smelled of summery refuse — sneakers, towels, bathing suits and the cheap fragrant matchboard of old bathhouses.

“Held together by the…transitoriness of the summer” is an obviously meaningless phrase, but with no ironic edge to redeem it. I don’t think that just by tacking on the bit about refuse Cheever has successfully subverted the hollowness of the opening phrase. If that’s his intention, then I think his approach to a pseudo-Americana style — Rockwell with stained tinges — isn’t very sharply developed.

Every time he pulls what might be an example of this trick of winking Old World genteelism — for example when he outlines the Wapshot family tree in Biblical language like “Ezekiel begat David, Micabah, and Aaron…David begat Lorenzo, John, Abadiah and Stephen.” — I have the sneaking suspicion he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too, by enjoying a lofty, lacy prose style while shielding himself from charges of cutesiness.

I think Cheever’s prose style is ambivalent more than anything else. To generalize, so much American writing has a conflicted insecurity — many, almost most, American writers I’ve read want to be fancy and delicate and sophisticated, but this is America, where that style clashes with all the rugged terrain. So you get writing like Cheever’s, which is fancy, but not really. So — what is it, actually?

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