January 2012

Alex Gallo-Brown


Reading Cheever in Bullet Park

My grandmother lived in Westport, Connecticut, for more than forty years. Last winter, she passed away and her antique, tomato-toned house was placed onto the market. After four months, the house still sat unsold. My girlfriend and I, in limbo on the East Coast after a summer spent working on an organic farm, decided to pay it a final visit.

I have fond memories of the Westport house. Upstairs are the slanted-roof rooms where my parents and brother and I used to play card games deep into the night while the lady of the house slept downstairs. In the bedroom closet is the black-and-white television my brother and I used to watch during concurrent bouts of insomnia. Outside, near the garage, the gravel-strewn driveway where we used to play Whiffle ball, hurling the white sphere at each other until our shoulders hurt.

My memories of my grandmother are more lukewarm. Mostly I recall her unchanging eating habits (Grape Nuts, rice crackers, deli sandwiches) and irrational, show-stopping assertions of control. During one spring visit that I remember, she refused to let us watch the second half of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. That she permitted us the first half seems, in retrospect, to have been some ingenious form of punishment.  

On our way through town, Jenne and I stop at Oscar’s Deli, a regular haunt of my grandmother’s. Soon, the man next to us strikes up a conversation. Well-dressed and middle-aged, with the exposed cottony chest hair of a cartoon porn producer, he informs us that he designs clothing -- he is the president of some well-known company. (We don’t know it.) He tells us he is writing a book, “a memoir of luxury” he plans to market to the Chinese. Such a pity to have so much money, he says, and so little taste. He hopes the book will help to remedy the situation.

While he speaks, a slender, attractive blonde woman jockeys silently for his attention. Finally, she shoves her iPhone into his face. It’s a picture of her friend, she coos, the recipient of some recent plastic surgery. How does he judge the work?

While he looks at the screen, she turns her attention on Jenne.

“You know,” she says thoughtfully, “you really don’t have an Asian nose.”

Jenne colors, laughs. The man glances up, embarrassed. We engage in more polite talk, finish our corn beef sandwiches, head back to the tomato-colored house.  

My grandmother split her life evenly between Westchester County, New York, and Westport. (The latter is a spiritual, if not technical resident of the former). An apparently striking redhead in her youth, she was the progeny of well-to-do New York City Jews. After moving to the suburbs, she played tennis and bridge, attended social events, was seen. A wife in Westchester and a widow in Westport. Later she learned to travel, vacationing in places like China, Denmark, Australia, and New Zealand.

We weren’t so much estranged from each other as unknown to one other, my grandmother and I. I was born three thousand miles away in Seattle, into a community that harbored the kind of staunchly liberal, faintly communitarian values that would have grated in Westport. My mom taught high school art. My dad wrote magazine articles. We lived a comfortable, if modest existence. Westport turned worlds away.  

At my grandmother’s house, Jenne and I find no Internet, no functioning television, no 21st century technology of any kind. After a summer thunderstorm renders the nearby river unusable, we settle down to read.

This had been much of the point of coming here, anyway -- a chance to read and relax after the non-stop work of the farm. Jenne begins with Joyce’s Dubliners while I flip open a novel by John Cheever, Bullet Park. I had picked it up used a few months ago after being intrigued by some of the back-cover blurbs. (“In a class by itself, not only among Cheever’s work but among all the novels I know”—Joseph Heller).

The novel turns out to be a malevolent, often hilarious satire of a New York City suburb not unlike Westport, the eponymous and sinister Bullet Park. The first section of the book is devoted largely to Nailles, an earnest husband and mouthwash salesman struggling to reconcile the animal facts of existence with the stifling suburban milieu. His elderly mother is dying. His teenage son is depressed. Sexual relations with his beloved Nellie have sputtered (“[Nailles’] procreative usefulness was over… but his venereal itch was unabated… and [Nellie] wondered if there wasn’t some massive obsolescence to the overly sensual man of his forties…”). To cope, he turns to illicit tranquilizers, convening with a discredited doctor to acquire his regular fix.

The second half of the book belongs to Hammer, the newest resident of Bullet Park. Independently wealthy and existentially depressed, Hammer has moved to the suburbs with a perverse ulterior motive: to find a representative citizen (Nailles, chosen for the coincidence of their names), murder him, and then nail his body to a Christian altar in an effort to waken that somnambulant world.

He has taken the plan from his mother, a Leftist loon living abroad in Germany. In our lone vision of her, she as an insightful critic of the American system (“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…”) but a failed and negligent mother. Hammer wanders his adulthood brokenly, deciding on murder to cleanse his wounded soul.

Throughout this cheery book, Cheever’s sympathies seem to rebound between his protagonists’ points-of-view -- between the outlook of the suburban stiff, on the one hand, slightly mystified by his interior world (he thinks of suffering as “a principality, somewhere beyond the legitimate borders of Western Europe” that sometimes sends him postcards) but well-intentioned nontheless, and the alienated malcontent who would nail him to a cross. “Oh, damn them all,” rages an adolescent in the book’s early pages. “Damn their hypocrisy, damn their cant, damn their credit cards, damn their discounting the wilderness of the human spirit, damn their immaculateness, damn their lechery and damn them all for having leached from life that strength, malodorousness, color and zeal that give it meaning. Howl, howl, howl.” The rant is tongue-in-cheek: Cheever ultimately dismisses the adolescent’s point of view. But the dismissal, too, is sarcastic (“Adolescents are never right…”), and the central tension of the book resides between these twin, vacillating sympathies.  

On a trip into town one day to visit the Westport library, I learn that Bullet Park garnered mostly hostile reviews upon publication in 1967. (Even today it remains one of Cheever’s least known books.) According to Cheever biographer Blake Bailey, critics at the time seemed to conclude that the author should have stuck to his much-venerated stories and left the novel alone. It would be almost a decade before he ventured another.

Unfamiliar with the literary politics of the day, I am hard pressed to remember a more riveting reading experience than Bullet Park. There was the poignancy of picking it up in Westport, of course, while staying in a town with such similarities to the one depicted by Cheever. It is also true that the book helped me to crystallize something formerly inchoate within myself. I both feel pity for the aging blondes mulling plastic surgery and want to slap them across the face.

But the novel is bigger than my own personal ancestry or illumination: the whole strange psychology of a place like Westport is bound up in it. The equation of material wealth with happiness or moral goodness, the elevation of social status into a religion, the striving for stability at the expense of lived experience -- Cheever evokes these people with tenderness even while he skewers their attitudes mercilessly.

“I can’t figure out what’s right and wrong in every situation,” Nailles says, attempting to counsel his bedridden son. “Pushing mouthwash isn’t a very inspiring life but when you think of the things we need you have to realize that someone has to make them. I mean razor blades and soap and bacon and eggs and gasoline and train tickets and shoes.” Someone has to make them, indeed.  

As the novel came to its close, I couldn’t help but wonder what my grandmother would have thought about all of this. She was not an unintelligent woman. A graduate of Northwestern University, she read prolifically throughout her life. She was renowned within our family for her humor and wit. She paid attention to politics, knew something of history.

There is a scene early in Bullet Park when Nailles’s wife Nellie rides into New York City to see a play. It turns out to be not what she was expecting. An actor reveals his (rather tantalizing) penis on stage; mobs of profane youth protest in a park outside the theater; and on the bus ride home she spies two men kissing. She is at once aroused and enraged by the wanton urban spectacle.

Looking back, I wonder how my grandmother was able to reconcile her own way of life with the evolving modern world, how she weathered her own inconvenient thoughts and desires. No wonder she was so absent from my childhood. The granola-and-Godard set would have been too much for her. The suburbs, Bullet Park -- that was her home.  

After a week holed up in Westport, I am more than ready to go. As we truck around the house, gathering up our things, I feel a great surge of gratitude. I will never have to come back to this place again.

My grandmother is gone and soon the house will be, too. But Bullet Park I will carry with me, both for its aperture into my ancestor’s life and its reminder of what to avoid in my own.