Slouching Toward Suburbia
John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love
By George W. Hunt
Review Author: S.L. Varnado
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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