Monday, March 11, 2013

Oh What A Paradise It Could Be

I can't put Oh What A Paradise It Seems back onto our bookshelf, for a second time in my life, without saying something about it, what John Cheever has meant to me, and the catalyst the monumental biography by Blake Bailey, Cheever: A Life, has played in this mix.

It is unusual for us to have two copies of the same book and only one such title resides alongside our two different bedsides, here at our home in Florida and on our boat in Connecticut, The Stories of John Cheever.  Before I retired, I used to carry it on any business trip that involved an airport or a hotel.  It was my "get out of jail free" card. In case of any delay, that book was my reclamation, picking out a short story that was ideal to fill in the time, and as I had read them all before, nonetheless always finding some new meaning or just again enjoying Cheever's charmed lyricism.  Cheever was the master short story writer and that is his genre.  His novels, although a pleasure to read, never seemed to measure up to the "reread test." Until recently.

I had read his last novel Oh What A Paradise It Seems when it was first published in the early 1980s.  At the time I was a forty years old.  I hadn't known of Cheever's illness then but probably thought of him as "old man" and the work seemed to me at the time to be disoriented and sad.  But Bailey's biography led me to reread the work and today, from the prospective being not only an older man myself, even older than Cheever when he died, it seems prophetic and profound.  It is a poignant work, clearly written by a man who knew he was dying and knew he would write little afterwards.  And writing to Cheever was like breathing.

I feel Cheever's pain rereading the work, even his personal pain of being so conflicted over his bisexuality, and his failing sexual powers, and the macro-pain of his knowing he was leaving a planet that at times was such a paradise, but one which also seemed to be slouching towards a hellish environmental ruin.

The story is less important to me than the feeling it leaves me with -- almost one of regret.  It is sad to bear witness, as does Cheever in the novel, to an overpopulated, hyperkinetic, media-obsessed society, seemingly hell-bent on environmental self destruction.  This is a far cry from the suburbia normally associated with Cheever's work.  Yet there is always hope and Cheever leaves us with that sense.

Cheever's favorite image, that of rain, begins the novel...

"This is a story to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night."
The protagonist, Lemuel Sears is skating on the pond in his old village, where his daughter now lives.  (Cheever was separated from his place of boyhood for most of his life, the Quincy, MA area, and he was returned there to be buried.)  The setting of the mythical "sleepy village" of Janice of the novel must be very similar to where he was born. This beautiful passage denotes his "homecoming:" "Swinging down a long stretch of black ice gave Sears a sense of homecoming.  at long last, at the end of a cold, long journey, he was returning to a place where his name was known and loved and lamps burned in the rooms and fires of the hearth.  It seemed to Sears that all the skaters moved over the ice with the happy conviction that they were on their way home. Home might be an empty room and an empty bed to many of them, including Sears, but swinging over the black ice convinced Sears that he was on his way home. Someone more skeptical might point out that this illuminated how ephemeral is our illusion of homecoming."

But the characters seem lost, homeless, nomads in the modern world.  Harold Chisholm is one such character:

"Nothing waited for him in his apartment. There was no woman, no man, no dog, no cat, and his answering tape would likely be empty and the neighborhood where he lived had become so anonymous and transient that there were no waiters or shopkeepers or bartenders who would greet him. He turned on the radio but all the music he seemed able to get was disco music, and disco music from those discos that had been closed the year before the year before last for drug pushing or nonpayment of income tax. He seemed to be searching for the memory of some place, some evidence of the fact that he had once been able to put himself into a supremely creative touch with his world and his kind. He longed for this as if it were some country which he had been forced to leave."

And in its 100 short pages we circle back to water and its primordial symbolism to Cheever:

"Now and then the voice of the brook was louder than Chisholm's voice. A trout stream in a forest, a traverse of potable water, seemed for Sears to be the bridge that spans the mysterious abyss between our spiritual and our carnal selves. How contemptible this made his panic about his own contamination. When he was young, brooks had seemed to speak to him in the tongues of men and angels. Now that he was an old man who spoke five or six languages-all of them poorly-the sound of water seemed to be the language of his nativity, some tongue he had spoken before his birth. Soft and loud, high and low, the sound of water reminded him of eavesdropping in some other room than where the party was."

Cheever died only a few short months after its publication.  Yet, his love of life always shines through as in the lyricism of one of the concluding paragraphs:

"The sky was clear that morning and there might still have been stars although he saw none.  The thought of stars contributed to the power of his feeling, What moved him was a sense of those worlds around us, our knowledge however imperfect of their nature, our sense of their possessing some grain of our past and of our lives to come, It was that most powerful sense of our being alive on the planet. It was that most powerful sense of how singular, in the vastness of creation, is the richness of our opportunity. The sense of that hour was of an exquisite privilege, the great benefice of living here and renewing ourselves with love, What a paradise it seemed!"

I would like to remember Cheever for the beauty he captured in his writings, and as opening day approaches -- with the impending cry of "play ball!" -- I will revisit his short story, "National Pastime," of which I am fortunate enough to have a limited edition, signed by Cheever, something to be cherished. It tells a story, in a small way similar to my boyhood -- when I pursued baseball without much help of my own father who was either bogged down by his troubled marriage or by his photography business.  As Cheever puts it, "the feeling that I could not assume my responsibilities as a baseball player without some help from him was deep, as if parental love and baseball were both national pastimes."