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Slouching Toward Suburbia

John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love

By George W. Hunt

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 326

Price: $17.95

Review Author: S.L. Varnado

S.L. Varnado is Professor of Literature at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.

In this new study of the tales and novels of John Cheever, Jesuit Father George W. Hunt con­tinues his paradoxical attempt (begun in an earlier book on John Updike) of appraising — with Chris­tian categories — certain contemporary authors who are not generally thought of as Christian. Such a project is fraught with obvious difficulties, and the reader watches Fr. Hunt with the sort of trepi­dation felt in watching an octogenarian grandmoth­er attempt to scale Mount Everest. “These Jesuits will try anything,” one mutters.

The title of Hunt’s book is derived from a pas­sage in Cheever’s Wapshot Chronicle in which an eccentric New Englander, Leander Wapshot, writes a supposedly consoling letter to his son, whose wife has left him: “Man is not simple. Hobgoblin company of love always with us…. Life has worse trouble. Sinking ships. Houses struck by lightning. Death of innocent children. War. Famine. Runa­way horses. Cheer up my son…. All in love is not larky and fractious.”

This “hobgoblin company of love,” according to Hunt, forms the essence of Cheever’s work. It is “a transcendent force, a positive power — bewitch­ing in its energetic potential — enlivening all that is vital in creation.” It is, if I understand Hunt cor­rectly, Christian grace in false face.

The difficulties involved in this thesis are for­midable. Cheever’s dazzling imagination ranges from passages of mystical beauty to mordant anal­ysis to ribald humor to unabashed eroticism. He is, by turns, delightful, bewildering, uplifting, and de­grading. This is what the ancients meant by satire in the strict sense: a feast spread with many dishes. But is it Christian?

To most readers, in fact, Cheever’s work ap­pears as a sort of New Yorker magazine in macro­cosm. As I was rereading some of Cheever’s short stories, I was struck by the number of vignettes that reminded me of New Yorker cartoons. In “Just Tell Me Who It Was,” an aging business exec­utive, swelling with pride over his young wife, stops conversation at a cocktail party by remark­ing: “Maria will now tell us something very funny that happened at the Women’s Club this after­noon.” In “The Chimera,” a husband brings a breakfast tray to his wife’s bed and is jolted by her comment, “I cannot any longer endure being serv­ed breakfast in bed by a hairy man in his under­wear.” It is this widely held image of Cheever as “the poet of suburbia” that Hunt seeks to exorcise by expanding our vision of Cheever as philosopher — and even Christian moralist.

Hunt’s strategy is to read Cheever closely in the light of a multitude of philosophical texts that include St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, Pascal, Northrop Frye, et al. Cheever’s novels and tales are analyzed under such categories as “dream vision,” “symbol,” and “dialectical con­figuration.” At times the terminology sounds a bit shopworn. We hear of nostalgia, memory, time, the Self, compassion, irony, and of course the Fall. Yet despite the academic clichés, Hunt’s close, pun­gent, and sympathetic reading of the texts (espe­cially Bullet Park and Oh What A Paradise It Seems) turns up unsuspected depths in Cheever’s suburban terrain.

Still, problems remain — and Hunt chooses to ignore them. There is, for instance, the blatant ho­mosexuality of Falconer, the cavalier promiscuity of Oh What A Paradise It Seems, and the occasion­al lapse into something like nihilism (as in The Wapshot Chronicle). Hunt dismisses such problems with a few offhand remarks about the work being “for adults,” which begs the entire question of Cheever’s Christianity.

Despite flaws, however, Hunt’s book provides a valuable and overdue assessment of a slightly ne­glected writer. Cheever is a melioristic figure in contemporary literature: engaging, comic, and at times profound. But whether such a tatterdemalion figure can be “baptized” is another matter.

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