John Cheever’s Bullet Park Captures It All
The suburbs originated as a mode of escape—from the grit and grime of the city, its voracious greed and crime, its dirty mix of ethnics and roustabouts—so that a clean front of respectability could welcome the refugees and offer them the safety they were perceived to have lost in the urban milieu. This fantasy, because it comes so freighted with impossible expectations, has generated some of our most durable literature.
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the suburbs were already being imagined as a safe venue for women’s domesticity and men’s virility to flourish. The transportation revolution of the middle and late nineteenth century made possible for the first time communities that could truly envision themselves as independent of the social life of the cities. The vast influx of immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century provided yet another boost to the desire to move to the suburbs; racial exclusion, never confronted as such, has always been a crucial part of the suburbs’ self-presentation. The rise of the automobile in the decades leading up to World War II accelerated the conversion of America into a predominantly suburban nation. After the end of World War II, suburban development, through increased government subsidies, got its biggest boost ever, and by the end of the unprecedented construction boom, the American Dream was inseparable from its suburban manifestation. The desire has always been to escape the urban nightmare; the weight of history compels suburbia’s chroniclers to admit that happiness is as elusive there as in the cities.
Beginning really with Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922), but also in the works of John O’Hara and John P. Marquand, the suburban male has been conscious that the project of flight is doomed to failure, and yet his rising consciousness of this fatal discord has been overlaid with a patina of self-justification and rationalization that the suburbs are still the best of all possible worlds. There was, in the early literary indictments of suburbia, equal parts ecstasy toward the sheer mechanistic prowess of the suburb, and doom toward the individual persona overwhelmed by its demands to maintain a cheerful front. In the current late phase of suburbia-bashing, writers like Richard Ford seem to be generating a very different kind of novel than seven or eight decades ago. The discomfort in Babbitt’s time that perhaps it was a fatal mistake to pursue false gardens of happiness rather than make our cities more livable is all but absent. (Ford’s relation to earlier suburban literature, particularly in The Lay of the Land, is like that of Proust’s endless miniaturization to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; descriptive elaboration to the final degree carries what remains of the moral weight of the narrative, in what is perhaps the culmination by exhaustion of this genre.) In this enervated contemporary phase, only a fearful unargumentative pose remains: the suburban male may still yearn for potency and manliness, but he does so with the full consciousness that the grooves he must walk have been so well worn that conjecture about alternative possibilities is not even funny.
The middle period, in the fifties and sixties, typified by Updike, Yates, and Cheever, is perhaps the most rewarding from our vantage point. This was close enough to the origins of suburban development to retain a sheen of novelty, which often results in prose that teeters enchantingly between realism and all its censored opposites, but far enough from the current entropic fears pertaining to climate and natural resources that a space was still possible for the strong individual to at least explore a kind of moral certitude, no matter how ineffective it might be in the end. Updike’s suburbs, in a paradigmatic text like Couples (1968), become the venue for the full exploration of the hedonistic urges of the times, leading to the predictable sorry conclusions—but still containing the excitement of helter-skelter liberation from constricted norms. Every form of distorted manliness is exerted here, leading to the inevitable clash between the demands of the corporate world—for which suburbia is really a natural extension of the corporate realm projected into the private world—and the desires of the advertising-formed male visionary. Yates seems the most sympathetic to the female imagination, battered by the stolid banalities of suburban existence; his novels accord a more concrete existence to women, telling us in the end that the female is also deprived of meaningful potency amid the false promise of liberation constituting the suburbs. Revolutionary Road (1961) sets the pattern for all of Yates’s more successful novels, as suburbanites seek to discover reverse paths of flight from the uncertainties that it was the very promise of the initial project to banish.
Ranking in quality with Yates’s Revolutionary Road, A Special Providence (1969), and Easter Parade (1976) is a less-appreciated classic of the genre, John Cheever’s Bullet Park (1969): arguably Cheever’s best extended work of fiction, succinctly poetic as in his best stories, and yet expanding the field of counterpoint and irony in ways only longer prose narrative can attain. Bullet Park seems to distill all of Cheever’s wry moral censure of the banal suburban existence represented in the best of his incomparable stories, and yet still pursues dimensions of human dejection not completely accessible to the shorter form, without ever losing intensity of expression. Its unfailing lyricism is perhaps the most poetic epitaph in our modern literature for our conception as American citizens entitled to undisturbed happiness, in the zone of safety known as suburbia.
The very concept of sub-urbia represents a forceful yoking together of impossible contraries. The suburbs are attached to the urban centers, but pretend to be so only peripherally. They derive their economic sustenance from work in the degraded cities, even as they thrive on an image of frontier self-sufficiency. They are the removed bedrooms of the corporate office towers downtown, yet they must posit an Edenic disinterest from capitalist pressure. These contradictions lead to the well-understood fractured personality, who cannot figure out, at his Sunday church outing or Independence Day barbeque (or during his affair with a forbidden married person), why happiness always eludes him. The resolute suburbanite cannot comprehend why he is supposed to pursue happiness. In the latest phase of suburban literature, the how is explored, but in Bullet Park, the why is still front and center. When the how and the why are pushed together, an explosive combination of moral uncertainties shatters all our assembled verities about the nature of American productivity and efficiency, and we stand exposed as wasteful exponents of a system none of us fully understands.
Consider the title Bullet Park: violence and romance are bonded together, as they must be in suburbia, since to be a respectable suburban resident one must do immense violence to all one’s outward expressions of idealism. In suburbia, all one’s public talk must emphasize the ultimate efficiency of the project, never question that at its base it is deluded and immaterial. Its substantiality, its corporeality, its sheer physical dominance must be accepted as the first point of business. In this imaginative leap, the house itself—Dutch Colonial, Tudor, whatever—becomes the final point of merger between the animate and the inanimate. Buying and maintaining a house is not a subsidiary activity—it is the center of public conversation and process, it is what lends coherence to atomized suburbanites, each wallowing in fears and anxieties. The house itself is the fetish that keeps giving; its concrete substantiality must be milked for an eternity of fateful concordance.
Thus in Bullet Park’s opening scene we see a stranger, Paul Hammer, in search of the ideal house (the novel is more about Eliot and Nellie Nailles, and their adolescent son Tony, than the Hammers, but we don’t get Hammer’s story until later, in Part II) for himself and wife Marietta: “The search for shelter seems to him to go on at a nearly primordial level” (4). Later, we’ll find out that Hammer is a bastard child, abandoned first by his father and then by his mother Gretchen, who keeps changing names and leads an itinerant life in pensions in Europe, unable to accept her banal Indiana roots. We will also find out that Hammer, when his adoptive grandmother dies (the name Hammer is given to him by his grandmother on a whim, as a gardener passes by the window with a hammer in his hand), lapses into a serious case of melancholy, what he calls the “cafard,” which will eventually lead to his attempt to kill the Nailles’s own cafard-suffering son Tony. But first Hammer, who has gone to a country day school and then Yale, must embark on a search for his father, Franklin Pierce Taylor of New York and Boston, whose marriage to his secretary Gretchen led to the unfortunate offspring no one wanted. The father turns out to be a dissolute philanderer, and the mother, completely self-enclosed (as though in a parody of the suburban ideal of totally private individuals), talks to herself at a pension in Austria, since she can’t afford the expensive therapy. Disillusioned, Hammer travels through Europe, and returns to America, in search of the rooms with “yellow walls” (183) and lighted windows, that he keeps dreaming will cure his cafard. On two occasions, the yellow rooms are just within his reach, once in Italy when the bridegroom who is preparing the rooms for his marriage refuses to sell them to Hammer at any cost. Eventually, Hammer will rediscover the yellow rooms of his vision in Blenville, Pennsylvania, and even though the owner, a smoldering divorcée named Dora Emmison, refuses to sell them to him, Hammer will get his wish when Dora dies on the New Jersey Turnpike, having imbibed freely of the bourbon Hammer brings her in one of his last attempts to inveigle himself into her sympathy. Hammer will meet his future wife Marietta (another person who will succumb to a full-fledged case of the cafard) through the offices of his cat Schwartz, who keeps disappearing for a week at a time, having found welcome at the home of an elderly European perfume-maker, and returning drenched with the scents each time. Marietta is the perfume-maker’s granddaughter, and the alliance with Hammer is quick and certain.
It is this Marietta who must acquiesce in buying the house Hammer is appraising in the opening scene, and who will later blow the cover on the illusion of suburban harmony by indulging in a rant aimed at her and her husband’s and all of suburbia’s unhappiness at a party to which the Nailles have been invited. But the first of these extended rants is offered by the widow, Mrs. Heathcup, who is selling her house to Hammer. Both the pervasive melancholy, and the unprompted rant which exposes the deep darkness we presume not even the therapist must be privy to, are characteristic gestures in Yates’s novels too, and in Bullet Park their occurrence each time jolts us out of any embryonic complacency we might be experiencing toward the reality of the suburbs due to Cheever’s incomparably precise prose. The difference with Updike, who seems to seek to further the substantiality of the suburbs by the sheer force of his descriptive prose (which is never as poetic and compressed as Cheever’s in Bullet Park), is obvious. Bullet Park is always barely this side of magic, which in some of Cheever’s stories emerges full-blown. Perhaps the paradigmatic profession for the disenchanted suburbanite is advertising executive (Nailles is merchandising director for the mouthwash Spang, whose inane jingles Hammer loathes; recall that it was in the twenties, with the onset of Babbitt’s suburbia, that the fear of body odor first became widespread fodder for commercial exploitation). We presume that an advertising executive, like his corporate masters, must be excellent at speechifying. The opposite of banal speechifying is unhinged rant, which erupts, as in Mrs. Heathcup’s version, to disorient the stability of the moment (yet its true import can never be recognized by the listeners, at the cost of death itself):
Before my husband passed away he saw that everything was in apple-pie order and the only reason I’m selling is because there’s nothing here for me, now that’s gone. Nothing at all. There’s nothing in a place like this for any single woman. Speaking of tribes, it’s like a regular tribe. Widows, divorcées, single men, the tribal elders give them all the gate. Fifty-seven is my price. That’s not my asking price, it’s my final price. We put twenty thousand into the place and my husband painted it every single year before he passed away. In January he’d paint the kitchen. Saturdays and Sundays and nights, that is. Then he’d paint the hallway and the living room and the dining room and the bedrooms and then next January he’d start all over again in the kitchen. He was painting the dining room the day he passed away. I was upstairs. When I say that he passed away I don’t want you to think that he died in his sleep. While he was painting I heard him talking to himself. “I can’t stand it any longer,” he said. I still don’t know what he meant. Then he went out into the garden and shot himself. That was when I found out what kind of neighbors I had. You can look all over the world but you won’t find neighbors as kind and thoughtful as the people in Bullet Park. As soon as they heard about my husband passing away they came over here to comfort me. There must have been ten or twelve of them and we all had something to drink and they were so comforting that I almost forgot what had happened. I mean it didn’t seem as though anything had happened. Well here’s the living room. (11-12)
It goes on considerably longer in this vein; it is only upon a rereading of the novel that we realize Hammer must have instantly decided to buy the house because the dead husband’s cafard is really his own. He seeks to appropriate a site of tragedy whose nature cannot be admitted, even by the widow, or by any among the town, because once the clothes are off, the party must stop.
In Bullet Park the narrator maintains at all times his indispensability, keeping a moral distance from all the personages of the story, without, however, any of the debilitating irony that seems to have become the mode of the moment now. We need the narrator to turn the reality of the characters’ own perceptions of themselves as self-motivated individuals into a necessary unreality, and we are constantly grateful to the narrator for reminding us of the utter contingency of place and event, the very antithesis of suburbia’s self-positioning as a predetermined place of repose. Cheever’s distance is not patronizing or unemotional; it is not the soul-emptying gesture of the metafictionists who were soon to become a dominant force in American fiction. Rather, it is an earned wisdom we are desperate to rely on, much as in the mode of the nineteenth-century omniscient giants, and we are never disappointed. Whereas dysfunction and illness have these days become metaphors sufficient unto themselves, Cheever’s brand of suburban unrealism in Bullet Park posits these as somehow being derivative of suburbia’s larger malady, which is rooted in the very impossibility of the imaginative project it represents.
Thus, describing the Nailleses:
Sitting at their breakfast table Nailles and Nellie seemed to have less dimension than a comic strip, but why was this? They had erotic depths, origins, memories, dreams and seizures of melancholy and enthusiasm. Nailles sighed. He was thinking of his mother. She had suffered a stroke four months ago and had never quite regained consciousness. She was a patient in a nursing home in the west end of the village. Nailles visited her every Sunday and remembered uneasily his visit of a week ago. (25)
There cannot be genuine sympathy in an environment built on the denial of sympathy (to the city’s lost and forlorn souls, whose very existence must be pushed out of the imaginative screen, if the suburbanite is to thrive in his dreams). The suburbanite is a creature of opposition, who chooses to see himself as some sort of natural outgrowth, the final endpoint of capitalism’s pursuit of safe happiness. So even marital infidelities or school failures must be witnessed and recorded as non-happenings. Whenever Cheever describes some aspect of the suburban space, in hammer-and-nail prose whose force of authenticity has not often been exceeded in this genre (he fixes a suburban street or square with all the grit of Updike, in a tenth of the words), we know that the counterpart to that is the periodic implosion of the happy suburbanite’s force field of barricade against the real world’s infelicities.
In Bullet Park couples are determinedly monogamous. This is a sharp departure from Updike and Yates, where couples twine and untwine with all the predictability of beasts, only to find themselves more bereft than before of satisfaction. By taking adultery out of the equation in Bullet Park, Cheever’s energies are freed to root out the sources of melancholy in their more underground origins. Suburban propriety is not something that can be harmed by random naked couplings; it is not something that is there to begin with, being only an attitude necessary to reconcile the impossibility of escape from drudgery. Nellie, pursuing art and culture like one of Yates’s star-crossed heroines, attends one day a play at a loft in the Village where a male actor takes off all his clothes; this deeply disturbs her, as do picket signs in Washington Square proclaiming Fuck, Prick, and Cunt. A decrepit woman then starts describing to Nellie her futile search for English cretonne in Manhattan stores, and the narrator explains Nellie’s bewilderment: “How contemptible was a life weighted down with rugs and chairs, a consciousness stuffed with portables, virtue incarnate in cretonne and evil represented by rep. She seemed to have glimpsed an erotic revolution that had left her bewildered and miserable but that had also left her enthusiasm for flower arrangements crippled” (32). Nellie is relieved to return to the safety of her suburban house, and pretend that nothing disturbing has happened. Why resort to infidelity’s pyrotechnics when what follows from its sad consummation can be prompted by the smallest of discrepancies between the suburbanite’s view of a world without strife and its actual pervasiveness?
Going as far back as Babbitt, the suburban male’s search for masculinity (and its corollary, the female’s search for femininity) has been a constant of the genre. Something in the sterile, antiseptic suburban landscape invites men to desperately realize their value as males. Yet if the promise of suburbia is that individuals can finally express their deepest desires here, in a habitat of security and comfort, the reality is that by the nature of its physical space all genuine expressions of desire are blocked. In Babbitt’s time a gung-ho patriotism and an as-yet unsullied faith in laissez-faire capitalism allowed the direction of male camaraderie into well-established Rotarian and country club membership. Ennui infected this, but the future was unclouded enough then to permit momentary immersion. The onset of the sexual revolution in the sixties redirected masculinity to conquest of females, in the same way that an advertiser might bring around a consumer—of mouthwash, say. Hammer and Nailles together—forceful opposites, necessary partners, yet never within sight of any sort of satisfactory consummation. Nailles constantly riffs on their names being inevitably joined together (no stranger is a real stranger in suburbia, since all are strangers), and when Hammer decides to kill someone (his wife Marietta, whose cafard is not responsive to palliatives like buying up houses with well-lit yellow rooms, has predictably pulled Hammer out of his peace of a year, by repainting his yellow room pink, leading to the departure from Blenville and the hunt for the perfect house in Bullet Park), he settles in the end for the younger Nailles. Tony happens to be the most visible sufferer from cafard in Bullet Park, even if no one can name his illness.
“One morning Tony refused to get out of bed” (40). The Nailles call on the usual resources: the general practitioner, the psychiatrist, and perhaps not so usual, the “specialist on somnambulatory phenomena” (46). Each reveals his utter indifference to the needs of the patient, the process of consulting being above all a necessary affirmation of the physician’s own sense of self-worth. It’s only later, after many days in bed, that upon the recommendation of a dismissed thieving maid, the call goes to Swami Rutuola, a Jamaican without an accent who is so saintly he doesn’t want his bad eye to offend people, and who inhabits a room above a funeral parlor in the downtown slum. The Christlike Rutuola is able to talk Tony into a cure, a resumption of his life as a decent suburban boy, directing traffic at cocktail parties, and if not returning to school, at least not setting himself up in opposition to it. Rutuola’s treatment consists of affirmative prayer, addressed to what force it remains unclear, but succeeding through fervent belief in its omnipotence when it is removed from the ego’s time-conscious desires. Suburbia’s promise of pervasive peace and happiness, its promise of eclectic faith and partnership, has rooted itself in this downtown mystic (who denies any healing power). If, like Tony, one has progressed far enough along the continuum of rejecting suburbia’s standard measures of accomplishment, one can indeed be healed by Rutuola’s primitive incantations. Really, what is there to be healed from? In suburbia, there are no wounds as such to recover from (this is Cheever’s brilliant advantage over more recent chroniclers of suburban misery, who take dysfunction as something outside the norm), since suburbia’s physical presence is possible only by denying the ultimate wounds. Whereas the Edwardian spirit sought connections among all phenomena (E. M. Forster’s dictum, “Only connect”), suburbia came into being denying the necessity of connection. This is not a wound meant to be healed, when the new motto seems to be, “Only separate.” Swami Rutuola’s treatment works because it is unmotivated, refuses to name the disease (or claim the diseased as such), and predates modern diagnostics and analysis. The narrator himself works in much the same fashion: rather than remaining beholden to pure realism’s presumed powers of illumination, Bullet Park is always threatening to escape into utter magicality.
By the end, Nailles can only take the 7:46 morning train to the city under the force of a “massive tranquillizer” (121), so unbearable has the daily commute become to him. But long before this, Nailles severs the connections with reality (the wounds of the planet earth) that are his only hope of ever finding satisfaction. This is Cheever describing Nailles reading the paper on the train:
He read his Times but the news in the paper, with the exception of the sporting page, seemed to be news from another planet. A maniac with a carbine had massacred seventeen people in a park in Dallas, including an archbishop who had been walking his dog. The usual wars were raging. The Musicians’ Union, Airplane Pilots, Firemen, Circus Performers and Deckhands were all threatening to strike. The White House secretary denied rumors of a fistfight between the President, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. Drought threatened the wheat crop. An unidentified flying object had been seen in Ohio. A hairdresser in Linden, New Jersey, had shot his wife, his four children, his poodle and himself. A three-day smog in Chicago had paralyzed most transportation and closed many businesses. Nailles felt uncheerful and tried the naïve expedient of bolstering his spirits by assessing his good fortune. Had he been indicted for grand larceny? No. Had he been murdered in a park? No. Had he been trapped in a building, lost on a glacier, bitten by a rabid dog? No. Then why wasn’t he more cheerful? (64)
When one identifies oneself as a suburbanite, one breaks connection with the reality of capitalism, as it shapes one’s deepest desires and needs, one’s very dreams and nightmares. Only the pretense of safety remains. Tony, we learn, has always been an indifferent scholar, getting C’s and D’s, and enjoying only football practice. When he is told by Miss Hoe (the pun conjoins in forceful terms the squalid name with the old-maidish virginity), his French instructor, that he must drop football, he stands up to announce that he could kill her, and she calls the police. Of course, he doesn’t mean it, but Miss Hoe already lives in perpetual fear of being mugged and raped and killed—“Weekly, sometimes daily, women who resembled her were debauched, mutilated and strangled. Alone in the dark she was always afraid” (80)—very much an anticipation of a state of terror that, in the intervening five decades, has proceeded by leaps and bounds for the suburbanite. Tony’s inability to rise out of bed follows a violent scene with his father at a miniature golf course, where Tony announces that he is dropping out of school and his father threatens him with a golf club. This is the kind of confrontational dialogue Hammer never was able to have with his father, who was missing in action. If a necessary part of composed masculinity is for father and son to have periodic heart-to-heart talks, then we are being told that any kind of conversation is impossible in suburbia, since it always degenerates into the forceful assertion of will. The cafard-sufferer’s rant is a corollary to this indulgence in monologue.
Nailles’s own rant comes in the form of justifying suburban respectability, and disconnecting it from the evils of the world:
[I]t makes me sore to have people always chopping at the suburbs. I’ve never understood why. When you go to the theater they’re always chopping at the suburbs but I can’t see that playing golf and raising flowers is depraved…. People seem to make some connection between respectability and moral purity that I don’t get…. All kinds of scandalous things happen everywhere but just because they happen to people who have flower gardens doesn’t mean that flower gardens are wicked. For instance, Charlie Stringer was indicted last year for sending pornography through the mails. He claims to be some kind of a publisher and I guess dirty pictures is his business. He lives in one of those Tudor houses on Hansen Circle and he has a pretty wife and three children. Flower gardens. Trees. A couple of poodles. The critics would say: Look, look, look what a big façade he’s constructed to conceal the fact that he deals in obsceneness and corruption, but what’s the point? Why should a man who deals in filth have to live in a cesspool? (66)
This comes early in Tony’s confinement, and Tony of course is asleep as his father rants. Nailles is denying that suburbia is a cover for sordidness, but he doesn’t admit that certain forms of depravity are made easier by a respectable cover. His rant (like that of Yates’s females) isn’t as penetrating as that of the females in Bullet Park. He quickly moves on to the pervasive talk of freedom and independence emanating from all official quarters in the country, and yet admits that “there are times when I like being told what to do” (67).
When Tony visits the city one day and ends up sleeping (we’re not sure if it’s sexual) with a thirtyish self-pitying war widow, a graduate of Smith called Mrs. Hubbard, whom he met while browsing poetry at a bookstore, Nailles is appalled at the “slut” (92) taking away Tony’s innocence. From football to poetry is the widest leap imaginable, and Cheever seems to be dismissing either pole as a satisfactory expression of desire in the space called suburbia. Football is acceptable, as long as it doesn’t lead to disruption of career goals. Poetry is for sissies and homosexuals, its threat to suburban domesticity as unacceptable as scholastic failure. In the end, art and culture are only accessories to the suburban achiever, always compartmentalized in a safe place. Their full emergence cannot be allowed. When Mrs. Hubbard notices an O’Hara novel lying on the table (Tony has invited her home for lunch), Nellie disputes: “I mean if you know the sort of people he describes you can see how distorted his mind is. Most of our set are happily married and lead simple lives” (95-96). (Hammer’s mother, the disaffected Gretchen who offers the most comprehensive critique of capitalism, can only do so in Europe, far from American suburbia). Nailles perceives the implications of Tony’s intimacy with the war widow: “The sexual authority that Nailles imagined as springing from his marriage bed and flowing through all the rooms and halls of the house was challenged. There did not seem to be room for two men in this erotic kingdom” (96). Acclaiming prescribed heterosexuality, Nailles says of Harry Pile, one of his old friends: “Pile was afraid of his secretary, afraid of his receptionist, afraid of strange women approaching him on the sidewalk” (102). Pile’s last fear, before dying, is “Do you think God will be a woman?” (103) Suburbia may be premised on the flourishing of the full range of desire, including its masculine aspect, which proceeds from imaginative dialogue between father and son, but in reality it is severely constrictive of masculine (or feminine) desire in any of its forms. It must kill desire, nip it in the bud, then disprove it ever was there. And yet its avatars must laud desire, incessantly, all the time, like masters of the advertising universe, as though to stop speaking of desire would lead to the disappearance of suburbia in the blink of an eye. Tony is close to the truth of suburban disillusionment, when he tells his father on the warring scene at the miniature golf course: “The only reason you love me, the only reason you think you love me is because you can give me things” (117). This is truer than Eliot Nailles will ever acknowledge, and in fact this prompts him into a violent fury.
On to Hammer’s mother’s rant at the Pension Bellevue in Austria:
“It’s true that I travel on an American passport,” she said, “but that’s merely the sort of compromise one has to strike in dealing with a bureaucracy. It is, however, a horrid place. When I was in the Socialist Party with your father I said again and again that if American capitalism continued to exalt mercenary and dishonest men the economy would degenerate into the manufacture of drugs and ways of life that would make reflection—any sort of thoughtfulness or emotional depth—impossible. I was right.” She poked a finger at me. “I see American magazines in the café and the bulk of their text is advertising for tobacco, alcohol and absurd motor cars that promise—quite literally promise—to enable you to forget the squalor, spiritual poverty and monotony of selfishness. Never, in the history of civilization, has one seen a great nation singlemindedly bent on drugging itself…” (167-168)
Hammer, of course, dismisses his mother as crazy, and leaves her immediately, even in the midst of his own doldrums. It is inevitable that he will choose to consume, in a displacement of erotic (or homoerotic) desire, Tony Nailles. Thus in the final scene, Hammer kidnaps Tony from his chores directing traffic at a cocktail party, and takes him to Christ’s Church to immolate this son of Nailles. Hammer, nails, cross, church: the elements are all in place for suburbia to once again reduce an event of cataclysmic proportions into a manageable news story and go on with its barbaric banality, persisting in yoking together the most impossible contraries in an ecstasy of self-denial posing as self-realization. Cheever’s language, at all points in Bullet Park, is equal to his task. It marries Yates’s dry, semi-magical entrée into the nightmare world of reasonless dissatisfaction, and Updike’s refamiliarizing of banal scenes from suburbia as description that exceeds its own brief, into a most satisfying coupling.
The acknowledgment of the cafard, in full-fledged disassociative (or is it associative?) rant, only derivatively existential, is Cheever’s strategy for disrupting the stable suburban narrative of progress and fulfillment. Sexual desire per se, in its outré sixties appearances, can be assimilated by the advertising machine, can be regurgitated as mere sickness to be treated therapeutically. Suburbia’s description of itself as a sphere removed from urban violence is a lie whose transparency is so manifest it must not be the prime mode of exposure. Where the melancholy individual goes to dream is actually the place where his nightmares have been compartmentalized. Suburbia joins these two forces together, and individuals constantly tread the faultline of self-destruction, which can actually occur following paralysis of action. Bullet Park presumes that its bourgeois audience will not want to be told how special it is; yet it doesn’t make a fetish of rubbing its faces in the dirt. This is narrative whose lyricism is a discriminating dream. The whole myth of suburbia, its origins and endings, is here, in extreme poetry, and the forms of deracination it engenders are the very source of the poetry. Bullet Park is the book where the genre of suburban fiction reaches its culminating intensity.
Baxandall, Rosalyn and Elizabeth Ewen. Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Cheever, John. Bullet Park. New York: Ballantine, 1969.
—. The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Knopf, 1978.
Fogelson, Robert M. Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870-1930. New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2005.
Ford, Richard. The Lay of the Land. New York: Knopf, 2006.
Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Lewis, Sinclair. Babbitt. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1922.
Marquand, John P. So Little Time and Point of No Return: Two Complete Novels. Boston: Little Brown, 1961.
Martinson, Tom. American Dreamscape: The Pursuit of Happiness in Postwar Suburbia. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000.
O’Hara, John. Appointment in Samarra. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1934.
Updike, John. Couples. New York: Knopf, 1968.
Yates, Richard. Easter Parade. New York: Delacorte, 1976.
—. Revolutionary Road. Boston: Little Brown, 1961.
—. A Special Providence. New York: Knopf, 1969.
This essay was published originally in The Antigonish Review.