Imagination, Wit, and Madness: The Wapshot Scandal, a novel by John Cheever

By Daniel Garrett

John Cheever, The Wapshot Scandal
Harper & Row, 1964

John Cheever is a wonderful writer, and his novel The Wapshot Scandal contains observed life and imagined adventure, bringing together ancient rituals and bourgeois affections and habits, private desires and deceptions and public reputations, romance called to reconcile a reality that resists, supernatural suspicions that subvert reason, and mournful, surprisingly poetic interrogations, as Cheever examines family and communal life. The novel does not contain stories that offer easy comfort, though their intimate cruelty and sensual pleasure and melancholy do entertain. I am very fond of John Cheever—and it is amusing to consider that the only American writer he reminds me of in The Wapshot Scandal is James Purdy (In a Shallow Grave and On Glory’s Course), an artist with a very different professional profile. These writers deliver unexpected stories in imaginative, witty language; and they refresh our sensibilities.

The Wapshot Scandal focuses on the Wapshot family, specifically on two brothers Coverly and Moses (and their wives Betsy and Melissa) and the brothers’ elderly, eccentric cousin Honora, who has been richly (and pridefully) generous as well as negligent of her tax duties, which gets her in trouble. A limited social life poisons the marriage of Coverly and Betsy, while Melissa, out of mundane boredom and a profound fear of death, stumbles into a more wanton sensuality apart from the attentions of her amorous husband Moses. Sex is a bond that does not always bind two partners in marriage to each other. Cheever is good at offering scenes that demonstrate forms of sexual repression (moral objection) and sexual transgression within and among individuals. Once more, people are always trying to get others to correspond, to conform, to the smallness of petty, presumptuous minds.

John Cheever’s attention to diverse detail—interior spaces and natural landscapes, and thoughtful conversations and moods and arguments as well as silent meditation; the detail of things small and large—creates a warm, vivid sense of world, of life. The quality of writing is impressive—this is an attentive, impassioned talent. When Cheever begins chapter ten in part one of the novel with a description of the hypocrisy regarding the treatment of cancer patients—and the mythologies—surrounding it and other illnesses (years before others attempted a related, rigorous deconstruction of illness as metaphor and meaning), it is clear that the perceptions available to genius may be considered prophetic and practical as much as philosophical. (It is intriguing that Cheever—through a character’s glance—then uses one figure’s stooped posture as an indication or a sign of questionable experience, flawed temperament: it becomes a demonstration of judgment followed by sudden compassion.)

One character, one woman—publicly recognized as a slut—commits suicide. She (Gertrude Lockhart) arrived at humiliation through ordinary degrees and too much liquor. Maintaining an ordinary house—plumbing, furnace, etc.—proves her undoing. In a century that advertises efficiency, good service is hard to buy and one’s own competence may not be at all adequate. Yet, the distant acquaintances who attend her funeral recognize aspects of her dilemma. Suffering comes to all—the intelligent and the stupid, the strong and the weak; and loneliness enters all kinds of lives, even those lives that have been purposely constructed to exile it. Cheever, a restless writer, knows that and his sentences are full to overflowing. His description of a young man’s (Emile’s) sexuality offers a view of sexuality as both impulse and social manipulation; and yet it is a view that is not without poetry or possibility. There is nothing ordinary about that writing. It is possible to read such writing too hungrily, too quickly.

In this novel written decades ago, the character Coverly—his value doubted by his blood family, and his serenity assailed by his wife for her social isolation—works at a missile research and computer center, which has security concerns and a caste system (the employees are identified by their work, their attitudes, their language, and their clothing). It is one of those places that connote both power and mystery. Fearing his own insignificance, Coverly wants to decipher the poet Keats’ technique by doing a computer analysis of Keats’ language. For that purpose, he befriends a talkative coworker, a computer programmer (Griza), at their complicated, mysterious work site. (Coverly meets his colleague Griza’s family, and Griza’s mother’s litany of pest infestation in their old house is of such excess as to be nearly mythic: it is the character’s exaggeration or the author’s indulgence or both.) The two men discover Keats’ verbal patterns, a poetry within poetry. (One assumes the precise explanation to be Cheever’s invention.) The novel itself seems to move closer to fantasy. That is confirmed when cousin Honora goes to Europe as a tax refugee—an elderly woman as adventurous fugitive. There is wildness at the root of John Cheever’s vision.

Part Two of The Wapshot Scandal
Coverly’s meeting an eccentric authority, and being on an airplane that is hijacked is a further elaboration of drama. The appearance of the authority (Dr. Cameron) before an official panel is a scientific and personal interrogation, one revealing shocking family events. Dr. Cameron’s concern for order and his egocentricity presage a lack of imagination and sympathy, and have led to personal brutality. He is chaos. (I wonder what Gabriel Garcia Marquez would make of such remarkable strangeness.) Meanwhile, the married Melissa’s infatuation and affair with a young man bring her erotic pleasure and then confusion, doubt, and lost pride. When she visits a priest, he embodies a sureness of thought that masquerades as insight but which is nothing more than cold judgment, impersonal doctrine. She wants something beyond the rituals of response—but is there anything else? Her choices have brought pain—and devastated her husband Moses: Moses, who has been thought more attractive and likeable than his brother Coverly by many, Moses who has kept score of his own drinking, gives himself more completely to drunkenness.

Part Three of The Wapshot Scandal
In the midst of their different adventures, both Melissa and Honora end up in Rome, each unknown to the other. Melissa works in film, using her voice for dubbing. Melissa’s young lover Emile has an uncle who gets Emile a shipping job—taking Emile also to Europe, and Emile inadvertently enters a strange contest, a new door to eroticism and fate. The much sought Honora leaves Rome for America, where Coverly visits the changed Honora (once sturdy, now thin; once confident, now chastened); and their meeting again is touching. The novel The Wapshot Scandal ends in a familiar season—with tidings of joy and peace and a reality far more complex—and it, the work of a unique writer, John Cheever, is a gift, a gift that inclines one to see art, life, and world differently. How could a man with the imagination and sensitivity of Cheever ever be reconciled to the limitations of society? It is not possible: consequently, we have The Wapshot Scandal.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  Garrett’s comment on Cheever’s work previously appeared on his internet log, The Garrett Reader.