A Family Snapshot
“Dark secrets, mostly carnal.”
Those are the words that are written in Leander Wapshot’s diary. In fact, all of the characters here in John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle are harboring secrets of their own and we—as readers—often delight in their dark secrets, their happiness and their misery. Mostly their misery.
The Wapshot Chronicle was Mr. Cheever’s first novel and it apparently took him fifteen years of writing before finally being published in 1957. This period from the early 1940’s into the late 1950’s was not spent totally in some creative hellhole; indeed, by the time the novel was published Cheever was already recognized as a superb short story writer with such classics as Goodbye, My Brother, The Enormous Radio, and The Hartleys. He was often called the “Chekhov of the Suburbs” and with the publication of this novel, it only cemented that comparison in the minds of many readers.
The Wapshots are a proud New England family from “an old place, an old river town” called St. Botolphs (inspired in part by Cheever’s boyhood in Quincy, Massachusetts) and at the start of this uproarious novel we are introduced to Moses and Coverly Wapshot, two brothers awaiting their prominent mother to come down the street on her float during the Independence Day parade. Their father is out on the family launch and couldn’t be bothered. Mother’s float eventually does come down the boulevards along with the others and there waiting in the crowd is a hoodlum, some practical joker who throws firecrackers and startles the horses. Almost at once, like those scared Equus caballus that ran away, we too are thrown off course. Such farce in just the first chapter! Immediately after this, the family lineage of the Wapshots is given to us in exuberant detail and soon enough the plot settles back into a trot and finds a peaceful path.
If one were to distill this book to its essence, to untangle some sort of narrative thread (and that is difficult to do at times) it is the story of this family and—more specifically—these two brothers. The two boys couldn’t be more different from each other. The eldest son, Moses “was in college and in the last year had reached the summit of his physical maturity and had emerged with gift of judicious and tranquil self-admiration,” while Coverly “was sixteen or seventeen then—fair like his brother but long necked with a ministerial dip to his head and a bad habit of cracking his knuckles.” We are witnessed to these boy’s family life, their lazy afternoons, their separate attempts at male bonding with their self-absorb father, their adolescent longings for the sun-tanned girls.
It is one girl by the name of Rosalie Young that springs both these boys into the adult world. After a car accident that nearly kills her (and does kill her boyfriend), she recuperates in the guest room at the Wapshot’s seaside home. It is here that the brothers begin to take an interest in this stranger. Moses even ends up sleeping with her at the end of one chapter! All this happens (literally) under the watchful-eyes of Honora Wapshot. She is the spinster cousin of patriarch Leander. She also happens to control the floundering family fortunes and it just so happens she uses this money as bait—after being thoroughly appalled by the actions of Moses and Rosalie and the laziness of the two brothers in general—to inform Leander and his wife, Sarah, that the only way their sons will see an inheritance is if they go out into the world and make something of themselves and have male offspring of their own. Thus, the boys leave home and go their separate ways, off to their own hellish realities.
We will follow the boys in a parallel timeline: Moses in Washington, D.C. and Coverly in New York and eventually we will see both of them settling down with wives in their respective suburbs. Here we will bear witness to cocktail party neighbors, marriages teetering on the edge, the contemplation of a homosexual relationship, and even a miscarriage. Every now and then we double back to St. Botolphs to check in on Cousin Honora alone in her big house and Leander and Sarah and their own dwindling marriage.
All of this might have the ring of soap opera, and indeed it does. However, it is Cheever’s language and his gift of constant narrative invention that carry us joyously along even as we are witnessing the lives of these characters unravel. Cheever seems to take an almost psychotic glee in smashing the rules of the conventual narrative to pieces. We might be reading about Betsey Wapshot’s (Coverly’s wife) devastating miscarriage one moment and then in a following chapter we are dissecting Leander Wapshot’s diary as he muses on the weather, his neighbors and even bits of his own adolescents all in an intimate yet strangely detached stream-of-consciousness prose style.
Cheever is not concerned so much with plot here as he is on his characters’ wanderings through life’s unknown forests. Our own lives can seem at times to be a series of random events, seemingly arrived at only by fate or circumstance. Cheever fully embraces this idea that life is unknown. There are parts of the book that don’t seem so much written as improvised. Characters, even whole plots are introduced and then cast away like leaves in a fall wind.
All this now established, it is now time for the most important part of any review.
Do I recommend The Wapshot Chronicle?
Is it a page turner?
The answer to both these questions is a plaintive Yes, once you surrender to the book’s magnetic force. The further into the book’s vortex that you are pulled, the harder it is to resist the Wapshots and what is going on around them. All of this is rendered with Cheever’s incredible prose style, from passages that are etched so beautifully in the imagination to satire as sharp as a stiletto heel. Disenchantment in the suburbs is nothing new. In many ways, the book could seem a cliché thanks to numerous film and television shows that have tackled the same material. However, Cheever did it first. He also did it the best. The Wapshots are a dysfunctional American family that you won’t soon forget.
Want more from this author?
Discover Neal Eric Yeomans’ debut: