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You Wouldn’t Believe It

A review of Bullet Park by John Cheever.

There are people who believe that when writers pass middle age their imaginative power—like their sexual energy—tends to diminish. If they are good writers, the argument runs, they have learned their craft by this time, and so their later books have a carefully disciplined, if comparatively lifeless, quality.

In his short stories over the past several years, and in his new novel, John Cheever reverses this formula. In his late fifties, he appears to be almost helplessly carried away by the flood tides of his imagination.

The parts of Cheever’s talent often seem to exceed the whole. His ear for speech, his eye for significant small actions, his polish, his boldness of invention illuminate almost every page of his work—but these gifts are often lavished on stories which seem, as a whole, unfinished, inchoate, even unserious. It is as if, in doing his little numbers, in running through the catalog of his many talents, Cheever loses interest in his characters and his story. He’s like a brilliant talker whose sentences are so full of inspired digression and incidental felicities that he forgets what he has set out to say. In his last collection, for example, there are at least three fine stories—The Swimmer, The Ocean and A View of the World—which end in a blur that is all the more unsatisfying for the remarkable precisions that have preceded it.

“A revolution of things colliding”—Wallace Stevens’ phrase would be an apt description of Cheever’s vision, if one could but see the revolution, if there were some sort of progression from one condition to another. But after all the collisions, large and small, his characters are still drinking martinis, still making middle-aged love every night, still catching the 8:11 in the morning, the only real difference being that they have survived the collision. And if that is the meaning of these stories, it is not enough, because the collisions themselves were only catalytic occasions, not great crackings in the surface of the human condition.

The plot of Bullet Park deserves to be called Gothic, with all the reservations that term implies. Eliot Nailles, mouthwash salesman and uxorious husband, meets Paul Hammer, a newcomer to his town, and the accident of their names instantly links their fates. Though Nailles is normal almost to the point of caricature, his son is stricken with hysterical paralysis and cured by a self-styled swami hired by father. While she seems to love him, Nailles’ wife is prevented from betraying him with three different men only by three separate acts of God: a fire, indigestion and Nailles’ being home with a cold. Nailles is no better off, for all his normalcy: he develops train phobia and buys unidentified tranquilizers from a mysterious pusher whom he meets in public rest rooms and cemeteries.

Paul Hammer is born out of wedlock and his name is derived from the circumstance of a handy man walking by with a hammer. Hammer’s father lifted weights and developed such a remarkable physique that, when he travelled in Europe, sculptors used him as a model for the figures on the facades of some of the Continent’s best-known hotels. And Cheever does not hesitate to have Hammer stumble over these figures—still standing, or lying in bomb craters—when it is his turn to go abroad.

Hammer’s mother has complicated musical dreams in which airplane engines play Bach and Handel. She lives in Kitzbuhel, and says that if she were to go hack to the U.S., she’d settle in Bullet Park and “crucify” someone whose life was less idiosyncratic than hers, i.e., a conformist.

This is what Hammer ultimately tries to do, but first he wanders about taking planes from here to there for no apparent reason (other than Cheever’s passion for place-dropping), falling inexplicably in love with women, men, children and  dogs. He suffers from a feeling of anxiety—a “cafard”—which can only be cured by inhabiting a yellow room he happens to see in Italy. When he tries to rent this therapeutic room, the tenant refuses to move. Falling back on his flying tic, he goes back to America, where, miraculously, he happens upon another such room. This tenant also refuses to decamp, but she is conveniently—or cavalierly—killed in a highway accident.

Happy in his yellow room, Hammer resumes his translation of the poetry of Montale. But his peace is soon disturbed by Marietta, a neighbor he falls for and marries. The honeymoon is short-lived: Hammer discovers that Marietta’s moods are always the inverse of the weather or the political climate. Thunderstorms and assassinations turn her tender; blue skies and prosperity bring out the bitch in her.

With no discernible motive—except his mother’s fantasy—Hammer moves to Bullet Park and sets about kidnapping Nailles’ teen-age son, whom he proposes to set afire on the altar of the local church. Nailles, however, is warned by the swami, in whom Hammer has unwisely confided, and he cuts the church door down with his chainsaw in the nick of time. Hammer then goes to an insane asylum and Nailles goes back to his everyday life, which is “as wonderful, wonderful, wonderful as it had been.”

It is necessary to summarize the plot to this extent because no one would believe it of a writer as talented and sophisticated as Cheever. On almost every page, someone is doing something highly improbable for a remarkably obscure reason. The wildest turns of events are wantonly invoked simply to move a character from one mood to another, or to bring two people a half-step closer together. Dreams, visions, insanity, religious mania, sexual obsession—Cheever’s palette seems to have nothing but screaming colors.

Minor characters who appear and disappear in the space of a few pages all have Pinter-like set speeches, center stage. Ordinary men and women ruminate poetically on philosophical or eschatological questions. People not only try to murder each other: they are killed by cars, trains, even, in one instance, castration fear. The book abounds in coincidences that would make Dickens blush. Blind passion and impulse are forever bursting the buttons or flies of Brooks Brothers suits.

In a peculiar way, Cheever seems to be championing exurbanites, who, he claims, all cultivate a more riotous garden than city slickers imagine. Under Thoreau’s quiet desperation lies a different desperation, which turns each fake Colonial into an asylum, a temple of love or hate. It’s as though Cheever is saying to New Yorkers, we’re even wilder than you are; we live out here not in search of a pastoral peace, but because we need more room for our dervish evolutions; we need more intimate contact for our outrageous occasions. Everyone is secretly smoldering like a barbecue. Bullet Park is an emotional nudist colony, a cult or commune dedicated to eccentric sexual or religious practices.

Cheever’s arbitrary manipulation of his characters betrays a deep contempt for—or at least a disinterest in—people’s manifest motives and concerns; these, he seems to be saying, are hopelessly prosaic, not worth writing down. Or perhaps he regards them as mere screens, or rationalizations.

He is determined to be surprising or original, even at the cost of incredulity. Bullet Park is almost a morality play in which supernatural agents determine everyone’s fate. But in morality plays, you at least had a general scheme—a morality—which helped you grasp the meaning. Cheever’s book is like a bottle party where you have to bring your own.