Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Wapshot Scandal – John Cheever

My Cheever obsession is developing apace, a temporary relaxation of Waterstone’s policy to stop me buying books saw a cashing in of loyalty points (bitching aside I’m a very loyal customer) in return for the acquisition of John Cheever’s ‘Collected Stories’, Maria Edgeworth’s ‘Helen’, and ‘The Count of Monte Christo’. The Count alone is well over a thousand pages and I’m now idly wondering how many words I got per pence, because Cheever’s ‘Collected Stories’ is a hefty old tome as well.

I’ve had ‘The Wapshot Scandal’ for a few months and have been sitting on it with unusual self restraint; normally I’d just plough through everything I could find by an author who appealed to me as much as Cheever did after ‘The Wapshot Chronicles’, but this way seems to work too, not least because ‘Scandal’ is a very different book.

Where ‘The Wapshot Chronicle’ is a mix of coming of age drama and paean to small town life in New England, ‘The Wapshot Scandal’ is a proper cold war novel (of which I’ve read surprisingly few – surprising to me anyway given that I grew up at the very end of the cold war period). Many of the same characters come back but life has moved on and not necessarily been very kind in the meantime. Even St Botolphs (the small town in question) shows signs of change and a fragmenting community. The whole tone is darker – within the chapter a Christmas eve scene of snow and carol singers starts to take in loneliness, alcoholism, and finally the death of an old man as he pitches into the freezing river whilst drowning a sack of unwanted kittens.

Decay and corruption - both moral and physical, are a constant thread throughout the book yet when it ends on another Christmas scene there’s a silver lining of sorts around the more general black clouds. Cheever is better known (apparently) for his short stories (I wish he was better known generally here because any way I look at it the writing is remarkable.) and in some ways ‘Scandal’ does read like a collection of short stories. The narrative is divided between different characters loosely connected by family and sex, each episode is an almost complete story in itself, somehow though it becomes a complete book, perfectly balanced and far more than the sum of its parts.

Despite, or more probably because of the overall bleakness I found more humour in ‘Scandal’ than in ‘Chronicle’, and more to empathise with as well. There are no certainties, this is the era of McCarthy after all, not to mention heavy drinking, twitching curtains, and rigid social mores. ‘Scandal’ is not as racy as ‘Peyton Place’, or as chilling as ‘The Lottery’, although both those books reflect some of what’s to be found here; a world of flawed but human characters who I find myself caring about far more than I would have supposed possible, and writing so dazzling I can’t begin to understand how it’s put together – which feels like a sure sign of genius.

And on a totally unrelated topic – I won’t draw for ‘Rhubarbaria’ until the weekend so please do put your name down if you think you might like that spare copy!


  1. I started reading The Wapshot Chronicle earlier in the summer, but I had to put it aside as I was struggling with it--no doubt a timing issue. I love his prose, but it felt so dense and the story sort of inpenetrable to me for some reason. Since it, at least in the beginning, wasn't just following one character in particular I think I lost the thread of the story, or never actually picked it up. I do want to return to it eventually however--it's nice to know The Wapshot Scandal is equally as good and maybe even better.

  2. I think my comment yesterday didn't get posted for some reason so I'll post again. I'm intrigued by your post and I'm now curious about Cheever. Can you recommend a good book to start with?

  3. Mrs B, I would suggest the short stories - although it's a doorstopper, The Wapshot Chronicles, because it gives you a good idea of what to expect, but really I'd just say give him a go. I've only read a couple out of several books but so far I've loved him.

    Danielle, I think it might be a timing issue. I too found the text dense, and the 'plot' just sort of meanders along slowly tying things together; at the risk of sounding like a prat I feel more like he's painting a picture than writing a novel. I found both books moving and absorbing, but imagine that in the wrong mood it would be less appealing.