Different Writers, Same-Sex Marriages & Fake Names
Is it possible the world is divided into Updike people and Cheever people? (Along with, I suppose, people who don't read at all?) I tried again — and failed again — to elicit some Cheever love among my students at Watershed. They remain steadfastly loyal to the man from Ipswich.
In a seemingly unrelated development, a bunch of Gravely Concerned Maine Citizens launched a petition drive to ensure that people like me can't get married.
I say "seemingly unrelated" because I hold the view that reading stories — and not just Bible stories — deepens and enlarges one's view of the world. Which is a good thing, though not always a comfortable one.
John Cheever was a complicated guy. Well, so was Updike. So are we all — the fearfully pious included. The story I tried this time — after last year's failure with "The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well" — was "The Swimmer," which was adapted into a pretty cool (actually rather chilling) movie starring Burt Lancaster. I figured, if the students dig the story, we can screen the flick.
So much for that. We've moved on to Joyce Carol Oates.
Toward the end of Cheever's life, he published an odd, slender, luminous novel called Falconer that I like very much, more than his earlier efforts at full-length fiction. And I have a theory about this.
To me, much of the fascination in reading Cheever (unfortunately lost on my students) derives from the giddy sense that we are bearing witness to glittering, dreamlike moments in American life that are absolutely unsustainable: fragile confabulations that might shatter at any moment. Sometimes — as in "The Swimmer" — they do. But more often they just wind themselves out; the endless cocktail party staggers into abeyance; Cheever allows his drunken, skirt-chasing and scurrilous characters to slink safely home, nurse their hangovers in peace, and live to adulterize another day.
Now that I think of it, some of my grown-up friends don't like Cheever much, either. Updikeans, I suppose. More's the pity.
Cheever's problem, vis-a-vis novel-writing, was that his tenebrous fantasies — like acrobatic shows at a circus that get kind of scary after a while — don't hold up so well in the longer format. You keep expecting the characters to fall and break their necks. But out of narrative self-interest they are not allowed to do so. After a while the whole show seems faked.
Falconer, a late-life work, is not like that. Because Falconer is honest. Falconer is about a man who, like Cheever — like me, once upon a time — was gay/bi/something but uncomfortably married to, you know, a woman. And Falconer weirdly, indelibly nails it.
I'll attempt no summary here. Since its publication in 1977 the novel has elicited adjectives like "redemptive" from reviewers. That's fair, I think.
I doubt many Bible-toting members of The Group That Dare Not Speak Its Name would venture to read a book like Falconer. Or for that matter that they would trouble to read closely the One Book in their hands. (I commend particularly Mark 14: 51-52, concerning the exact manner in which Jesus spent his last night of freedom upon the earth.) Well, more's the pity.
This latest righteous effort to deny that people are really who they are, and to codify in law that certain people ought to have fewer rights than others, might well succeed, for all I know. Or it might not. If my students at Watershed could vote — as two of my own three kids now can — then full marital rights (and responsibilities) for all citizens would be that much closer to reality. And in the long run — however long it takes — that's how things will shake out.
Maybe someday, in that happy future, everyone will read Cheever with equal enjoyment. Though on that score, I do not hold my breath.