Friday, March 23, 2012

the last book I read

The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever.

So we're in New England, in the fictional Massachusetts town of St. Botolphs, and we're about to meet the Wapshots. There's Sarah, who we first meet being carried away on an Independence Day parade float by a runaway horse, her husband Leander, a retired sailor now running day trips for tourists on the SS Topaze, venerable and formidable cousin Honora, owner of the Topaze and of Sarah and Leander's house and not about to let them forget it, and finally Sarah and Leander's sons Moses and Coverly.

Much eccentricity follows, lovable and otherwise. When the Wapshots rescue Rosalie Young from the car crash in which her boyfriend has been killed and let her recuperate in their house, it's not long before her and Moses are getting up to a bit of sneaky doctors and nurses in the bedroom. Honora, who happens to have been hiding in the wardrobe at the time (it's a long story), decides that it's about time Moses (who, we gather, has been putting it about a bit among the local girls as well) went off and made his way in the world. So he heads off to Washington while Coverly runs away to head after him and ends up in New York, and subsequently ends up marrying nice-but-dim Betsey and joining the army.

Meanwhile, back in St. Botolphs, Leander contrives to sink the SS Topaze after a rudder failure in a storm and an argument with some submerged rocks. The salvaged boat is permamently moored near the house and Sarah opens it to the public as a floating trinket shop, with some success, much to Leander's chagrin.

And what of Moses? Well, he meets the enigmatic Melissa though her guardian, a distant cousin and another formidable matriarchal type, Justina. Melissa lives at Justina's family seat, Clear Haven, a rambling and semi-derelict old country mansion with various gnarled old retainers in attendance. After a brief courtship Moses and Melissa are married and take up residence at Clear Haven, where they are subjected to Justina's increasingly eccentric behaviour. Meanwhile Coverly and Betsey have had a falling-out and a brief separation during which Coverly embarks on a brief dalliance with homosexuality - a dalliance comprising fretting about it a bit and resisting the advances of a work colleague rather than any actual hot man-on-man action. Anyway, Betsey soon returns and the natural order of things is restored, some nice cathartic God-fearing heterosexual coupling banishing all that deviant stuff from Coverly's mind, exactly as happens in real life. Moses' problems are solved in a similarly convenient way by Clear Haven being burnt to the ground and its various occupants scattering to the four winds, Moses and Melissa included.

As is obligatory with any family saga of this kind (see here, here and here for examples) there's a big family gathering at the end, prompted in this case by Leander's funeral - his last excursion into the sea for a swim proving fatal. Melissa and Betsey have already produced sons, so the next generation of Wapshots is assured.

I think it's fair to say that this is an odd book in many ways. A good comparison might be to Old School - first novel by a guy previously well-known as a writer of short stories, and one which in many ways reads like a bunch of short stories glued together into novel form. Various elements - Rosalie's time at the Wapshot house, the business with Leander's first wife and her daughter, Moses' mission of mercy to the woman who's fallen off her horse - drift into the narrative and then vanish. The Wapshot Chronicle is weirder than Old School, though, and it's fascinating to see the stuff swimming around beneath the surface here - the women are eccentric and capricious, both the stereotypical matriarchs like Honora and Justina, but also Betsey and Melissa, and the men alternately mesmerised, bewildered and frustrated by them. And then there's the curious interlude featuring Coverly, after Betsey has temporarily abandoned him, and his dalliance with Pancras, his superior at work who tries to persuade Coverly to come on a "business trip" to England with him. Cheever precedes this short section of the novel thus:
And now we come to the unsavory or homosexual part of our tale and any disinterested reader is encouraged to skip.
This all makes mores sense once you know that Cheever himself struggled with his bisexuality for most of his adult life. Oddly, this subject came up on Start The Week on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago as part of a general discussion about how many authors were not generally very nice people in real life. The only comment I have to add to the discussion is how phenomenally camp Colm Tóibín is, a fact which in combination with his Irish accent makes him sound not unlike Graham Norton. Cheever's sexuality issues will be no surprise to fans of Seinfeld, incidentally, as they formed the basis of a whole episode in season four in 1992.

Anyway, The Wapshot Chronicle won the National Book Award for fiction in 1958, as did The Corrections in 2001. My brief list here goes: 1958, 1965, 1988, 2001.

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