It was through reading Raymond Carver I got to reading John Cheever, who was something of a mentor to Raymond. Cheever’s short stories interested me both for their intrinsic merit as well-written short stories and also because their subject was, in many cases, suburbia. It was American middle-class suburbia of the 1960s and quite ‘upmarket’ in comparison to the housing estate where I lived during the 90s (and am still living) which Cheevers’ people referred to (negatively) as ‘the developments’. The houses were a lot bigger, the families wealthier, the jobs they had were more prestigious… say Blackrock, or Dalkey or Castleknock, and I don’t mean the sprawling housing estates, like mine, that appropriated the name because they were built (somewhat) near Castleknock. I mean the bigger houses near the Phoenix Park, home of Irish political dynasties. (Well, one anyway).
But there were similarities. The closeness and the distance inherent in living side-by-side. The ever-present awareness of neigbours watching. The small disagreements over kids. The Washing of the Car on Sunday. The Hosing of the Lawn.The over-indulgence in alcohol (and, later, drugs). The coming home from work each evening– from office and/or professional work, of course. The petty snobberies, the … well, suburbia. It may be that this scenario of detacheds and semi-detacheds has been written about better by other writers, but if so I haven’t found them.
So it is that I always take up a John Cheever book knowing that I and my kind are in there somewhere. As with ‘The Wapshot Chronicles’, ‘Bullet Park’ did not disappoint. I prefer his short stories because he keeps himself on a tighter reign and his writing is therefore more focused. In these novels he allows himself some largess and indulges in that episodic ‘picaresquesness’ so beloved of the Americans since Mark Twain. Being rather simple-minded I prefer my stories neater and in a straight line. But that’s me.