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Supermarket and Superhighway: John Cheever’s America


ISSUE:  Autumn 1986

Asked why he wrote fiction, John Cheever used to answer that it was what he could do best, his craft, his usefulness. But he also wrote, he said, to “make sense of my life.” The process was not so private as it sounds, for by attempting to make sense of his life Cheever provided his readers with insights into their own lives, their own times. What he wrote about, almost always, was the present, and it was a present he shared with his audience. No one else, as Joan Didion remarked in 1964, tells us so much about “the way we live now,” and she did not mean as a social realist alone. What is remarkable about Cheever’s attitude toward the world he confronted is how much it changed in the course of his career. There are many excellent writers, Saul Bellow has observed, who do not develop or expand. But, he added, “John Cheever was a writer of a different sort, altogether,” one who went through a dramatic metamorphosis.

In The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), his first novel, Cheever contrasted a somewhat idealized and unrecapturable past with a less hospitable but not intolerable present. His tone ranged from genial to satirical without becoming bitter. Then, in his dark period of the 1960’s, and particularly in The Wapshot Scandal (1964) and Bullet Park (1969), he adopted the narrative stance of a visiting anthropologist who, despite his apparent objectivity—”at the time of which I’m writing,” the narrative voice would remark—regarded the ills of modernity with something verging on despair. Finally, in his last two novels—Falconer (1977) and Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982)—this dismayed observer struggled toward acceptance of the deeply flawed universe, and even toward affirmation. Miracles could happen.

From these novels and from such well-known stories as “The Death of Justina” (1960) and “The Angel of the Bridge” and “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow” (both 1961), it would be easy to assemble a catalogue of the troubles besetting Americans in the third quarter of the 20th century. Technology can destroy the world. Our food, our entertainment, our homes, our very existences have become standardized and tasteless. We’ve lost our roots. Love gives way to lust, religion to psychiatry. Liquor and drugs anesthetize us against the fear of death. Cheever spells out no such bill of particulars, but it is implicit in the stories he tells and emerges through incident and conversation and symbol. Two dominant symbols in his work for this modern malaise are the superhighway and the supermarket.

Of the two, the superhighway is the most frequently and obviously invoked. Cheever’s expressway that gouges through the landscape compares with the 19th-century railroad as the machine in the American garden. Emerson speculated that the railroad rides upon us and not the other way around, Thoreau feared that we had constructed a fateful engine beyond our capacity to control. A similar theme runs through much of Cheever’s work, where the superhighway is the Atropos that levels the contours and obliterates the sights and smells of a fragrant past, and that in combination with trains and planes produces an incredible mobility at the expense of homelessness.

Uprootedness is at the heart of The Wapshot Chronicle, in which the two brothers Moses and Coverly Wapshot leave their native St. Botolphs to seek their fortunes in more thriving areas. All the young leave St. Botolphs, a dying seaport town. The movement is toward nomadism (a favorite Cheever term), toward a gypsy culture without roots, and the psychic costs—in loneliness and in yearning for roots—are heavy, especially for Coverly and his wife Betsey.

The young couple are assigned to Remsen Park, a government community where Coverly is employed in missile work, and Betsey—a small-town girl herself—is desperately lonely there. Bereft as she is, she is drawn to the supermarket, a modern artifact that has a more ambivalent symbolic import in Cheever’s fiction than the superhighway.

She walked out of Circle K and down 325th Street to the shopping center and went into the supermarket, not because she needed anything but because the atmosphere of the place pleased her.

There she strikes up a conversation with the pleasant young cashier who directs her to the electrical appliance store five doors down the street. There she strikes up a conversation with another man who promises to fix the cord on her iron and comes home, where she strikes up a conversation with a vacuum cleaner salesman who happens to ring her bell. Betsey can find friends only by way of these instrumental relations. Distraught, she decides to leave, and in her absence (for she will come back) Coverly “thought of her against scenes of travel—trains and platforms and hotels and asking strangers for help with her bags—and he felt great love and pity.”

A relationship clearly exists between supertravel and supermarket. The fast cars and express trains and jet airplanes that make nomads of us all bear a certain affinity to the supermarket that is not really the friendly country store Betsey Wapshot wishes it were. “Not all the roots of American life are uprooted, but almost all,” Norman Mailer wrote in “Superman Comes to the Supermart,” his November 1960 Esquire article about the nomination of John F. Kennedy. They have given way to “the spirit of the supermarket, that homogeneous extension of stainless surfaces and psychoanalyzed people, packaged commodities and ranch homes” most perfectly exemplified by Los Angeles. By a remarkable coincidence, immediately following Mailer’s article in that issue of Esquire was Cheever’s “The Death of Justina,” a story that depicted hell in a supermarket.

“The Death of Justina” is the story in which the suburb of Proxmire Manor attempts to zone out death. “How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?” the narrator wonders, and adman Moses Wapshot substitutes the Twenty-Third Psalm for the Elixircol commercial he is supposed to be writing, but first he has his nightmare about the crowded supermarket. The ceiling was “paved with fluorescent light, brilliant, cheerful, but. . .a harsh link in the chain of light that binds us to the past. Music was playing and there must have been at least a thousand shoppers pushing their wagons” along, all of them looking “penitential and unsexed.” The shoppers were dressed “with sumptuary abandon,” grandmothers in shorts, big-butted women in knitted pants, and Moses himself in “buckskin jump boots, chino pants cut so tight that [his] sexual organs were discernible and a rayonacetate pajama top printed with representations of the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria in full sail.”

At this stage the dream becomes sinister, for nothing on the shelves is labeled or identified, everything is concealed in brown bags, and yet his “companions of the dream. . .were deliberating gravely over these mysterious containers as if the choices they made were critical. Like any dreamer,” Moses observes, he was both with them and withdrawn, and “stepping above the scene for a minute” he saw—not Garcia Lorca “down by the watermelons” and Walt Whitman “poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys,” as in Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”—but brutes at the check-out counters, subhuman creatures obdurate in their “resistance to the appeals of love, reason and decency.” When the shoppers reach the counters, these brutes tear open their packages, and “in every case the customer, at the sight of what he had chosen, showed all the symptoms of deepest guilt. . . .” They are then pushed or kicked toward the door and beyond the door Moses “saw dark water and heard a terrible noise of moaning and crying in the air. . . . What could be the meaning of this?”

There has passed through Cheever’s head and into Moses’ consciousness and onto the page a vision of hell more chilling than Dante’s, for these sinners are consigned to the darkness without knowing how or where or why they have erred. It would hardly have surprised anyone who read this story in 1960 to know that shortly before writing it, Cheever characterized his condition as that “of a man in a quagmire, looking at a tear in the sky,” or that shortly after finishing it, he declared that “life in the United States in 1960 is Hell” and “the only possible position for a writer now is negation.” The pattern in “The Death of Justina” was the same the novelist George Garrett found running through the digressions in Cheever’s next novel, The Wapshot Scandal. “Begin with a credible, typical situation, push it an inch or two into the realm of hilarious farce, then the farce of a sudden becomes dream, and all dreams turn into nightmare.” Published in 1964, Scandal was Cheever’s darkest book. The novel is full of suicides, and its author was on the brink of suicide himself when he finished it.

II

The fear of death dominates The Wapshot Scandal: death by nuclear explosion, death by plane crash, death on the highway, death by cancer, above all the death-in-life of a meaningless and boring suburban existence that confronts Moses Wapshot’s beautiful wife Melissa. Melissa, like the scientist Dr. Cameron who plays the violin while matter-of-factly contemplating the end of the world, seeks escape from mortality in lust. Dr. Cameron feels “the chill of death go off his bones” in the arms of his Roman mistress. Melissa purchases her own warmth in the form of the grocery boy Emile, and eventually they, too, go to Rome, on the wings of a supermarket promotion.

Fired from his job at an old-style grocery store because of his fornication with Melissa, Emile goes to work “at the new supermarket on the hill—the one with the steeple.” To lure customers from the Grand Union and the A&P, the new store develops “an exploitation package.” The store promises to distribute a thousand plastic eggs on Easter Eve, with certificates inside for a dozen real eggs, a bottle of French perfume, an outboard motor, and so on, with five golden eggs entitling the finders to “a three-week, all-expense vacation for two at a luxury hotel in Madrid, Paris, London, Venice or Rome.” Emile is hired to hide the eggs between two and three on Easter morning, but word gets out and—in a scene Malcolm Cowley construed as “a Brueghel vision of hell”— he is pursued on his rounds by dozens of women in nightgowns and robes and curlers (they all appear “to be wearing crowns”) who block the progress of his car and let the air out of his tires so that finally he is reduced to throwing eggs and dumping entire crates of them into a tract of empty land. But Emile keeps the golden egg for Rome in his pocket, on the way home leaves it on Melissa’s lawn, and that—with bizarre complications—is why Melissa and Emile are living together in the Eternal City as the novel ends.

In effect they are exiles rather than expatriates in Rome. Melissa’s marriage has of course collapsed. The Italians whom she and Emile see socially treat them like the outcasts they are. She is last glimpsed in the Supra-Marketto Americano, pushing her way through the walls of food as solace for her bewilderment and grief.

Her face is pale. A stray curl hangs against her cheek. Tears make the light in her eyes a glassy light but the market is crowded and she is not the first nor the last woman in the history of the place to buy her groceries with wet cheeks. She moves indifferently with the alien crowd as if these were the brooks and channels of her day. No willow grows aslant this stream of men and women and yet it is Ophelia she most resembles, gathering her fantastic garland not of cornflowers, nettles and long purples, but of salt, pepper, Bab-o, Kleenex, frozen codfish balls, lamb patties, hamburger, bread, butter, dressing, an American comic book for her son and for herself a bunch of carnations.

John Cheever was fully cognizant of the comic paradox of the supermarket in Rome, and liked to tell a story about meeting a rather assertive Bostonian at an embassy cocktail party there.

“What do you do, Mr. Shivers?” the Bostonian asked, having missed the name.

“Oh, I write. What do you do?”

“I’m a manager for Minimax in Boston.”

“What brings you to Rome, then?”

“Well, Mr. Shivers,” the Bostonian declared, “Rome needs Minimax and Minimax needs Rome. We’re going to build a supermarket in Rome that will put the Pantheon to shame.”

Though hardly a rival to the Pantheon, Cheever’s modern supermarket is rich and strange indeed. “Except for the shapes of the pastry,” the narrator of the 1962 story, “A Vision of the World,” remarks during his Saturday afternoon visit to the supermarket, “there was nothing traditional to be seen at the pastry counter.” Then, having purchased his brioches, he is inspired by the cha-cha music to dance briefly with a homely stranger. But no such humor, no such momentary gaiety brightens the picture of Melissa at the Supra-Marketto, like Ophelia grieving unto madness.

Despite the darkness of The Wapshot Scandal, Cheever insisted in the Time cover story that appeared a few weeks after the novel was published that he felt “an impulse to bring glad tidings to someone. My sense of literature is a sense of giving, not a diminishment.” And he emphasized that he did not intend to belittle anyone trapped in contemporary culture, like the woman obsessed with collecting plaid stamps, for example. “It is quite possible that a woman who goes to sleep and dreams of getting a new plaid-stamp book is not quite as undignified as she appears to be. People actually sidestep the pain of death and despair by the thought of purchasing things. . . . The time for levity or even making fun of people who go to bed and dream of having 17 plaid-stamp books full is over.” Josephine Herbst, a writer Cheever had known and respected since the mid-1930’s, could not agree. “You may be right about the plaid stampbooks and the utility of buying to stave off thoughts of death,” she wrote him, but she could not “imagine life, anywhere, at any time, so pared down to that necessity.” He was, she thought, celebrating the wrong values, and besides, Time had him all wrong as a facile celebrant. “You don’t just celebrate life out of nothing, but out of a deep pessimism. Which makes it the more valid, for our time, for any time.” Herbst was absolutely right about that, for if in his later novels Cheever seems “suspended between a tragic pessimism and a raptured expectancy. . .[seems] to be listening for the tone of angels, as the earth smoulders beneath him,” it was the tension between these polar outlooks, and the attempt to resolve them, that gave his writing power and dignity. The resolution did not come easily. His nearly impossible task was to make the world of the supermarket (and the superhighway) “in which we must live, congenial to the sensibility that makes life worth living.”

III

More than anything else Cheever wrote, 1969’s Bullet Park sings the sorrows of excessive mobility. The title refers, rather ominously, to a suburb not unlike Proxmire Manor in its pretended immunity from the rigors of life, but in fact Bullet Park is a dangerous place to live and represents a permanent home for almost no one. “The people of Bullet Park,” the anthropologizing narrator observes, intended “not so much to have arrived there as to have been planted and grown there, but this of course was untrue.” Everything is in flux in this apparently comfortable world. The novel opens on the scene of a small railroad station, but this is not like the wistful way stations of the past. The building, designed “with some sense of the erotic and romantic essence of travel,” is now “a warlike ruin.” On the station platform one morning, a waiting commuter is sucked under the Chicago express, leaving only “a highly polished brown loafer” to signify his passing. On that same platform, co-protagonist Eliot Nailles waits in terror for his daily ride to New York City. He has made the trip a thousand times, but now a phobia overtakes him and he cannot board the train unless he dopes himself with a massive tranquilizer that will float him “down the tracks into Grand Central.”

The other protagonist, Paul Hammer, is a world traveler who settles in Bullet Park to awaken the world by murdering Nailles’ son Tony (Cheever is little concerned with credibility in his late fiction). Obviously unbalanced, Hammer is subject to attacks of melancholy that overtake him on trains and planes and drive him to the brink of suicide. Then, however, he remembers that he has been inspired by his insane mother to commit a ritual murder and so shock America out of its drugged stupor. He does not succeed. In the end, Nailles rescues his son as Hammer prepares to immolate him on the cross of Christ’s Church and, in a curiously ambivalent ending, brings matters back to normal. “Tony went back to school on Monday and Nailles— drugged—went off to work and everything was as wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful as it had been.”

“Never, in the history of civilization,” Hammer’s mother proclaims, “has one seen a great nation single-mindedly bent on drugging itself” like the United States. She chooses to live in Europe but on a trip to Los Angeles takes a ride on a freeway and there witnesses “another example of forgetfulness, suicide, municipal corruption and the debauchery of natural resources.” Bullet Park itself averages 22 traffic casualties a year “because of a winding highway that seemed to have been drawn on the map by a child with a grease pencil.” One Saturday morning, Nailles takes Hammer fishing, and they drive north on Route 61, one of the “most dangerous” and “most inhuman” of the new highways.

“At least fifty men and women died on its reaches each year,” and Nailles—driving through the catastrophic mixture of domestic and industrial traffic—fondly recalls the roads of his young manhood.

They followed the contours of the land. It was cool in the valleys, warm on the hilltops. One could measure distances with one’s nose. There was the smell of eucalyptus, maples, sweet grass, manure from a cow barn and, as one got into the mountains, the smell of pine. . . . He remembered it all as intimate, human and pleasant, compared to this anxious wasteland through which one raced the barbarians.

Despite its emphasis on the stupefying effects of drugs and liquor and on the deadly pathways of rapid travel, Bullet Park offers a more hopeful picture than The Wapshot Scandal. Nailles is not terribly bright or capable, but he does manage to rescue his son. Moreover, as his reminiscence about the roads of yesterday suggests, he remains keenly attuned to nature. When he comes home to Bullet Park one night, the rain lets up, and he can distinguish the various sounds that the wind out of the northeast makes as it fills up different trees: “maple, birch, tulip and oak.” What good is this knowledge? he reflects, and answers his own question. “Someone has to observe the world.”

Exactly, and while he thinks this, the mysterious Swami Rutuola is upstairs with the teenager Tony who has troubles of his own, the murderous Hammer aside, and in a period of extended depression has refused to get out of bed. Neither conventional medicine nor psychiatry can rouse Tony, but Rutuola does. His method is to invoke an appealing image in Tony’s mind and to reinforce that image with repetition. “I am in a house by the sea,” the Swami has Tony repeat after him. “It is four o’clock and raining.” “I am sitting in a ladderback chair with a book in my lap.” “I have a girl I love who has gone on an errand but she will return.” “I am sitting under an apple tree in clean clothes and I am content.” Next the Swami coaches Tony in the “love” cheer and the “hope” cheer-—he says “love” over and over, as many as a hundred times, and the same with “hope”—and miraculously the treatment works and Tony is restored to health.

In effect the whole Cheever program for coping with the ills of modernity is summed up in these few pages. “Someone has to observe the world.” Restoration comes with mountain air, the wind in the trees, the rain at the seashore, the scent of apples. It comes through love. And it will not come if we succumb to despair.

IV

Ezekiel Farragut in Falconer, Cheever’s widely publicized 1977 novel set in prison, conquers his drug addiction and escapes from confinement—again, miraculously—through giving himself in love and persistently yearning toward the light. Farragut’s release from addiction and imprisonment paralleled Cheever’s own 1975 victory over the confinements of alcoholism. Thereafter the darkness that pervaded The Wapshot Scandal and, to a lesser degree, Bullet Park, gave way to radiance. Despite its forbidding subject matter, Falconer is full of blue sky, and there is nothing equivocal about its affirmative ending. Free at last, Farragut walks into the future in a coat a perfect stranger has just given him as protection against the rain and against detection. “Rejoice,” he thinks to himself. “Rejoice.” That there was more to celebrate than to bemoan became an article of belief for Cheever in his last years.

Yet as the title of Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982) hints, the earth we inhabit is not really a paradise, or at least is not likely to remain one in an age of pollution. The old man Lemuel Sears comes up from New York to go ice skating on Beasley’s Pond; the exercise reawakens his vigor and his sense of the glory of creation. The pure waters of the earth remind him “of pictures he had seen of paradise.” But commercial interests contrive to turn the pond into a dump.

Most wandering people evolve a culture of tents and saddles and migratory herds, but here was a wandering people with a passion for gigantic bedsteads and massive refrigerators. It was a clash between their mobility—their driftingness—and their love of permanence that had discharged its chaos on Beasley’s Pond.

Sears tries to head off destruction of the pond, but this is not easy. The rapacious forces of commercial greed, aligned with a public indifference born of the very mobility that made the dump profitable in the first place, seem too much for those who want to preserve the planet. And yet, in spite of murderous profiteers and an apathetic public, the dumping is stopped at Beasley’s Pond and the process of purification begun. This victory is achieved with the aid of a long stretch of coincidence and in clear violation of the long arm of the law. The heroine is a young housewife named Betsy Logan, and both superhighway and supermarket figure in her triumph.

Betsy comes from a new generation—the one that has grown up with music in its ears—and she is Jess appalled at the inroads of modernity than the usual Cheever commentator. But in this final novella the narrative voice itself has become more hopeful. Betsy and her husband Henry and their two sons, Randy and baby Binxie, go to the beach one sunny day, and on the return trip Betsy drives the first leg so that her husband can sleep before they hit the heavy traffic on Route 224. “Two twenty-four was a convergence of six- and eight-lane highways that made her think with longing of the simplicity of their day on the beach, when there was nothing more difficult to comprehend than blue sky and salt water.” She wonders fleetingly if such highways have not “robbed men and women of some intrinsic beauty that the world possessed.” But that is a foolish thought, for she knew “that they couldn’t have got to Chelmsford Beach if it hadn’t been for the highways that seemed so alien.” In any event, when the Logans do reach 224 and switch places, somehow baby Binxie is left by the roadside—and there, a short time later, the environmentalist Horace Chisholm discovers him. Chisholm takes the baby to the police and waits until the family is reunited and is invited to dinner by Betsy who asks what she can do to repay him. “Do whatever you can to save Beasley’s Pond,” Chisholm suggests.

And so Betsy does, using the Buy Brite supermarket as an ally in her campaign. Betsy Logan, like Betsey Wapshot earlier, likes supermarkets.

One of the several pleasures in Betsy’s life was visiting Buy Brite, a massive store in the shopping mall on the four-digit interstate. She liked—she loved—to push a cart with nice rubber-tired wheels through a paradise of groceries, vegetables, meats, fishes, breads and cakes to the music she danced to in the year she fell in love with Henry. Then when she paid for what she had chosen she would be given a number that might name her the winner of one hundred thousand dollars or a trip to someplace like Honolulu.

At this stage, the narrator intervenes to associate Betsy’s reaction not with a violation of the past but a calling up of ancient memories. “Betsy was not at all interested in the paleontological history of barter and marketing, but the purity and simplicity of the bounty she saw at Buy Brite were like a reminder of the markets and festivals of earlier history.” Whether she knew it or not, Betsy was “participating in one of the earliest rites of our civilization.”

The music in the Buy Brite this day, from the Brandenburg Concertos, has been chosen by a neurasthenic nephew of a major stockholder who would never amount to anything and who meant to convey an “irony between eighteenth-century music and the tumult of a contemporary shopping center.” But, the narrator insists, there was no irony at all. “The capital of Brandenburg was a market village and on a summer’s day when the doors of the cathedral stood open the great concertos must have been heard by the grocers and merchants. Betsy pushed her cart toward the express lane to the music that has contributed more, perhaps, than any other voice to our concept of nobility.”

Buy Brite is the place of communication Betsy returns to on behalf of Beasley’s Pond. What she does is to poison a bottle of Teriyaki Sauce and paste to it the message: “Stop poisoning Beasley’s Pond or I will poison the food in all 28 Buy Brites.” At first there is no reaction, but then she expands her operations and a family is poisoned—there are no fatalities— and “the news went all the way around the world, and the dumping in Beasley’s Pond ended at once.”

The strategy is ethically dubious, and hers constitutes but one small success when measured against the continued befouling of the planet, but the narrator fashions a positive generalization from the cleanup of Beasley’s Pond. “The loveliness of the landscape had been restored. It was in no way distinguished, but it could, a century earlier, have served as a background for Eden or even the fields of Eleusis if you added some naked goddesses and satyrs.” Cheever’s version of paradise regained, in this book published a few months before his own death, stretched back past Bach, past Christianity, to pagan roots. He was on his way, if he could, to join the satyrs.

Cheever has been criticized for looking backward, for a nostalgia that by overvaluing a golden past ignores the question of how to confront the flawed present. But in his later work that is not at all true. He was every bit as aware in 1980 as in 1960 of the depradations that nomadism and commercialism (symbolized by superhighway and supermarket) had worked upon his culture. Yet in his last fiction he rejected negation as a contemptible attitude. In his most optimistic moods, he looked to the future rather than the idealized past for relief. Perhaps, he thought, the “automobile dumps, polluted rivers, jerry-built ranch houses” of the present were “not, as they might seem to be, the ruins of our civilization but. . .the temporary encampments and outposts of the civilization we—you and I—shall build.”

In any event, so long as people could see the blue sky, feel the sea breeze, smell the sweet grass, and love one another, they should not succumb to despair. Life itself was the greatest of gifts. What he aimed to do, in Falconer and Paradise, was “to study triumphs, the rediscoveries of love, all that I know in the world to be decent, radiant, and clear.” Was his writing getting better, a particularly dense television interviewer asked him in 1979? Well, not necessarily better, he answered, but he hoped there was a growth “as if one were discovering more light, if light is what one is after.” This observation silenced his interviewer entirely, but those who read Cheever’s fiction carefully and admire it, like John Updike, knew what he was talking about.

When Updike read Paradise in proof, certain images stuck in his mind: “The ecstatic ice skating, the wind chimes, the exultant evocation of the supermarket. This last place especially needed you to sing it,” he wrote Cheever in December 1981. The previous month, the two writers made a joint appearance on the Dick Cavett show, but Updike felt he had not managed to articulate for television what he most valued in his colleague’s work. “I kept saying radiant on Cavett but it’s more like the little star inside a snowball on a sunny day.” What Cheever had done during the 1960’s was to tell us how we lived. In his last two novels he went beyond that. “You do that elemental thing only the rarely good writer can do”— Updike summed up the accomplishment—you “tell us how we are alive.”

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