Cheever to Roth to Malamud

I happen to believe that John Cheever is our best living writer of short stories: a Chekhov of the exurbs. This view is not commonly shared. Critics tend to take an avuncular attitude toward Cheever; they have already written their one review of him and stashed it away in a drawer, waiting for the next book. Anyone who writes so clearly and so wel, about such ordinary matters as marriage and children, cannot be presumed to be highly serious. He must be trying to glide by on charm.

See how effortlessly he goes about his business in this new collection. He enters his stories the way the rest of us leave our homes, opening the door, stepping out. getting rained on by the day. The awareness of each story seems random; it is composed of what is noticed. But watch: the noticing begins to fix on discrepancies. What is perceived is out of synch with what is felt. What is said is so often wholly inappropriate to the circumstances—women, usually, say those awful things in Cheever’s fiction—that the story becomes a mugging. It’s as if we had agreed to pretend that politeness is reality; then rudeness, aggression, attack not only our notion of ourselves but our notion of how the universe is supposed to be organized. Yeats asked, “How but in custom and ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born?” Cheever was after something similar in Bullet Park when he talked about “that sense of sanctuary that is the essence of love.” The people whom he allows to tell his stories—men, always, in The World of Apples (Knopf, $5.95)—find no sanctuary. Custom and ceremony are in shambles. Innocence and beauty are remembered, not experienced; and even the memories are suspect: what is being remembered is the desire for innocence, beauty, and sanctuary, rather than the fulfillment. And what remains after the stories have gone is the watermark on the day’s page, the blood-vein in the mugger’s eyelid: chance and terror.

And yet it is all accomplished with a casual left-handedness. Consider these beginnings, these doors opening on stories: “Reminiscence, along with the cheese boards and ugly pottery sometimes given to brides, seems to have a manifest destiny with the sea.” “Artemis loved the healing sound of rain.” “The first time I robbed Tiffany’s, it was raining.” “The subject today will be the metaphysics of obesity, and I am the belly of a man named Lawrence Farnsworth.” “It was one of those rainy late afternoons when the toy department of Woolworth’s on Fifth Avenue is full of women who appear to have been taken in adultery and who are now shopping for a present to carry home to their youngest child.”

What is happening? We never hear about a second or third robbing of Tiffany’s; we hear instead about an abusive servant and the old lady she reviles; at the moment of death, they learn that they are daughter and mother. Mr. Farnsworth’s belly is a witty trifle of a story, exactly what Philip Roth could have made out of The Breast if he had been able to control himself and resist the silicone injections. The rain will have to heal Artemis; his Russian love is interdicted by our State Department. What began in the toy department of Woolworth’s ends with the death of a man who has canceled himself out by trying to solve the problem of his wife’s unhappiness with Euclidean geometry.

In other stories, a husband objects to his wife’s simulating sexual acts on a stage, naked; refusing to join her and others in a “love pile,” he discovers “some marvelously practical and obdurate part of myself,” but he loses his wife. A middle-aged man with an unhappy marriage conjures up a phantom, a chimera of a young girl who needs his “love, strength and counsel”—only to lose even this. An expatriate returns to America to find that the walls of our public buildings are scrawled over with a new kind of graffiti, florid writing about Roman banquets, haunted manor houses, and geraniums—“What had happened, I suppose, was that, as pornography moved into the public domain, those marble walls, those immemorial repositories of such sport, had been forced, in self-defense, to take up the more refined task of literature”—and flees back to Europe. A woman who has lost three husbands to traffic accidents starts shooting truck drivers with a rifle. A kitten is ground up in a kitchen blender.

Loss, and various forms of mourning. Love, but never enough of it to “quite anneal the divisive power of pain.”Here is an elderly poet remembering his boyhood on a farm in Vermont, and a natural fall of water: “He had gone there one Sunday afternoon when he was a boy and sat on a hill above the pool. While he was there he saw an old man, with hair as thick and white as his was now, come through the woods. He had watched the old man unlace his shoes and undress himself with the haste of a lover. First he had wet his hands and arms and shoulders and then he had stepped into the torrent, bellowing with joy. He had then dried himself with his underpants, dressed, and gone back into the woods and it was not until he disappeared that Bascomb had realized that the old man was his father.”

Compare that with another story, a bitter vignette that breaks the heart. A man takes an aisle seat on a 707 for Rome. He is presentable, charming, likes people and is liked by them. There is a beautiful woman of his own age in the window seat. The middle seat is unoccupied. For the nine hours of the flight he tries to talk to her; she is rude and distant, refusing even the most civil of intimacies, seems actively hostile toward him. He does not understand. Neither does the reader. We come to the final paragraph. They have landed:

“But look, look. Why does he point out her bag to the porter and why, when they both have their bags, does he follow her out to the cab stand, where he bargains with a driver for the trip into Rome? Why does he join her in the cab? Is he the undiscourageable masher that she dreaded? No, no. He is her husband, she is his wife, the mother of his children, and a woman he has worshipped passionately for nearly thirty years.”

I reread the story, and someone had applied the tip of a knife to my pineal gland: Cheever, touching the spot where the mind and the body were once supposed to connect, nicking it, passing on.

Now consider these desires, expressed in the stories: “Should I stand up in the theater and shout for her to return, return, return in the name of love, humor and serenity?” “But God, oh, God, how much I then wanted some kind of loveliness, softness, gentleness, humor, sweetness, kindness.” “Was there such hidden balance and clemency in the universe that our needs were always requited?” “If we are any less than shrewd, courageous, and honest with ourselves we are contemptible.” “Were the Littletons making for themselves, by contorting their passions into an acceptable social image, a sort of prison, or did they chance to be a man and woman whose pleasure in one another was tender, robust and invincible?” “One felt that they might live together with intelligence and ardor—giving and taking until death did them part.” “No amount of ignominy or venom could make parting from [his wife and children] imaginable. As he thought of them, they seemed to be the furniture of his soul, its lintel and rooftree.” “One could disparage them as homely but they were the best he knew of life—anxiety and love.” “His return to Monte Carbone was triumphant and in the morning he began a long poem on the inalienable dignity of light and air.”

I like these words, and the emotions they invoke—love, humor, serenity, sweetness, strength, clemency, intelligence, ardor, soul. They aren’t used much, or they are not used honestly, in books by Cheever’s peers. Irony has deformed these words; they have become indices of simplemindedness; their profession is excused, or traduced, as a black joke. There is, of course, no escaping irony. It is an indispensable tool for writers of twentieth-century fiction, part of the surgical bag, like sex, ennui, paranoia, and a contempt for your readers. But it isn’t absolutely necessary to use irony as a club for bludgeoning your characters into submission; writers who use truncheons are fearful of themselves.

Irony can be used the way Cheever uses it: protectively, on behalf of ardor and intelligence and clemency, even while these words, these values really, are inadequate to cope with a world of chance, of evil. Inside Cheever’s irony, love and humor are preserved, not abused. A sadness obtains. His fiction has consistently been about a certain failure of reciprocity in our relations with the rest of the universe. (Women, especially, are unknowable and chancy; I suppose someone will write a tract about it, missing the point.) What we don’t know, didn’t expect, and can’t understand overwhelms our decent impulses. We lose. We are not, however, ugly for losing. And the rain tries to heal.

After several years of fiddling around—Our Gang, The Breast— Philip Roth has gotten back to useful work. The Great American Novel (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $8.95) isn’t. It couldn’t be, even substituting baseball for the whale. Contemporary writers lack the nerve, if not the energy, for such an enterprise. (Irony, again, consuming itself and all our fabrications.) But it is a hugely inventive, often brilliant, very funny book that collapses into giggles and splinters twothirds of the way through. Roth can’t sustain it. I don’t know who could have.

We have a third major league in baseball: the Patriot League. Its cities have names like Port Ruppert, Kakoola, Aceldama, Asylum. Its heroes have names like Luke Gofannon. It will not survive World War II, for reasons too complicated to go into right now. Its story is told by an Ishmael named Word Smith, ex-sportswriter, ex-ghost of presidential speeches, last honest man.

The best part of The Great American Novel is Roth’s account of one wartime season in the life of the Patriot League, when the once proud Ruppert Mundys have to play all of their 154 games on the road because their stadium has been leased to the government as an embarkation camp for troops on their way overseas. The Mundys are an awful team—most of them over the hill, some with limbs missing, at one point two midgets on the same roster—but they are superbly realized by Roth. We drag through the season with them, losing every game they lose twice over. (One game they do manage to win, an exhibition against a team made up of inmates from a lunatic asylum, is the most hilarious contest ever committed to print—and that includes Mordechai Richler’s softball game in St. Urbain’s Horseman.) As baseball novels go, and they go surprisingly well, The Great American Novel finishes first, with Bernard Malamud, Robert Coover, and Mark Harris close behind. This may be the moment to wonder why so many talented American writers are so obsessed by baseball, and why they all seem to mourn it. But I won’t.

Listening in on Roth has always been like listening in on the paranoia of the nation, by car radio at night somewhere on top of a mountain. The signals are coming from every synapse in the continental nervous system. Roth hears it all, twists it to his advantage. The prose is electric; the static is dangerous. Talk is the ache of wounds. No other writer I know of has Roth’s ear, or his mouth, the clenched teeth through which a scream is trying to whistle. Of venality, defeat, humiliation, he knows everything. He has looked at the myth—well, if sport is our only souree of binding symbols, baseball is better than football—and seen that it is tar paper. The shack falls down under the weight of history. The children who believed in the myth are buried, crushed, inside.

But he had to turn the destruction of the Patriot League into a Communist plot. He had to bring on the Dies Committee and the NKVD. He had to force a political grid on top of his story and score it like a waffle. I know, I know: he’s trying to work conspiracy theories against myths, explode them both, and all the energy of paranoia is devoted to doing the job. It exhausts his book. I don’t for a moment believe the last chapters of The Great American Novel, while the season was as real as the one we’re into now. The invention is too desperate, and the political intelligence is too conventional, for any of this to matter.

If Roth had left well enough alone—let the season of the Ruppert Mundys stand for the season of America—his novel would have had the precision his critics are always saying he lacks. (Remember the critic who said on the front page of a prominent literary magazine that Portnoy’s Complaint was the book “every Jewish writer has wanted to write”? Remember Stanley Edgar Hyman quoting that critic, and then gently asking him in a parenthesis, “Lionel Trilling?” So much for criticism.) But Roth’s manic genius never permits him to leave well enough alone; he worries it. He paws, he chews, he sniffs, he is too easily distracted. He even introduces a Jewish child prodigy who tries to coach the Mundys according to the statistical principles of Earnshaw Cook’s Percentage Baseball. Which means we’ll have seven long articles next year in Commentary magazine on “Jews and the Baseball Problem.” He shouldn’t have done it.

The Great American Novel is worth the price of admission—Roth is better than he’s ever been before—but you may want to leave before the final dog act.

Bernard Malamud is like an old bear in his cave who spends each winter dreaming up new things to do in the spring. Each book is astonishingly different from the last. Malamud’s ambition is enormous: baseball, Russian political prisoners, relations between blacks and Jews. Rembrandt’s Hat (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $6.95) is his first collection of stories in ten years, and it is Malamud in a minor key; the growls are sotto voce.

This is a book of messages. A young man whose father is dying receives a soiled card: “Heal the Sick. Save the Dying. Make a Silver Crown.” He orders a silver crown and his wish, terrifyingly, is granted. A widower traveling in the Soviet Union receives some pages from his cabdriver. They are short stories, and the widower is expected to smuggle them out to a Western publisher. Another young man with a father in the hospital is asked by an inmate to mail a letter for him; it contains nothing but blank sheets of paper, and there is no address on the envelope. Another widower, a doctor, finds a letter in his apartment building that was intended for someone else—a young woman. He will be humiliated. The young wife of a professor of architecture passes notes to a former student during a dinner party; he will be disappointed and perhaps frightened. A father reads his son’s mail, trying to understand him. A talking horse—a man inside a horse? not quite—answers messages that are tapped on his skull by the mute who owns him. (A wonderful story, shorter than Roth’s breast, longer than Cheever’s belly: where do we go from here?) A sculptor’s hat is a sign of pride and fear; it must be read by an art historian before the man can be understood.

Messages, but not much communication. Malamud’s characters are locked into their repressed desires, their fear of the future. They spy on themselves, and deny each other. Like Nabokov’s characters, although without the cerebral chill, they all talk alike. (Well, all Homer’s heroes talked in Ionian hexameters.) In Malamud’s instance, the talk has

elements of the city, the immigrant, a book culture broken in the mind: it is knotty; it needs gestures to accompany it. These are unfinished, or malformed people, tense from trying to make sense of their situations, suspicious of their emotions. I’m not sure just what attitude the bear takes toward them: he lacks Cheever’s empathy; he is not as savage as Roth. He holds his people at a distance and makes them dance. Their awkward steps have a way of rubbing on the awareness until it hurts, as their talk rubs away at the language until it seems to cry for more words, better words, a different life.