John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle

The Wapshot ChronicleThe Wapshot Chronicle was John Cheever’s first published novel and established many of the themes he would become known for: the disconnect between a character’s private and public life, the sense of community fostered by small towns vs. the anomie and alienation of the suburbs, marital strife and a kind of painful nostalgia for a dying way of life marked by propriety, innocence and family cohesion. Cheever’s protagonists are the Wapshots: Leander, the depressed patriarch, and Honora, his wealthy  and eccentric aunt, as well as Coverly and Moses, Leander’s sons, who have been told that to inherent their aunt’s fortune they must not only marry but produce a male heir.

The book follows the various ways that their lives come into conflict with the expectations of family, friends and society. The burden of expectation falls like a shadow upon each character, darkening their lives and forcing them to suppress their emotions and desires. Cheever has been called the “Chekhov of the suburbs,” a nod to the subtleties he employs to tell his story: there are deaths and marriages and miscarriages, but the real drama is subdued, captured in a facial expression or turn of phrase, and the brunt of the reader’s time is spent trying to ascertain the motivations of a given character.

Cheever’s prose is elegant if somewhat utilitarian; he is not given to long, descriptive passages or poetic musings on the human condition, but what digressions there are contrast beautifully with the dialogue and expository writing. The fictional New England town of St. Botolphs is exquisitely rendered and peopled, and the sparseness of Cheever’s prose enhances the inherent awkwardness of many of the books’s most tense moments, as when one of the protagonists becomes unknowingly involved in a friendship with a gay man whose overtures become increasingly hard to ignore or rationalize away. Ultimately, Cheever’s novel is a penetrating look into family dynamics and the tensions created by the struggle between social propriety and the desires of the body and soul.