OH WHAT A PARADISE IT SEEMS
Question: when are three or four John Cheever stories less welcome than one? Answer: when, as here, those three or four stories are fragmented and intertwined into a novella--an itchy, neither-here-nor-there form which, unlike the short story, doesn't frame the delicate late-Cheever melange (nostalgia, satire, fable, spirituality) with structural sureness. The principal story-line, recalling "The World of Apples," offers an elderly gentleman in love--or is it lust? Lemuel Sears, a twice-widowed computer-industry executive, spies beautiful real-estate woman Renee in a Manhattan bank, is swamped with reborn Eros ("She could have been the winsome girl on the oleomargarine package or the Oriental dancer on his father's cigar box who used to stir his little prick when he was about nine"), and is soon her insatiable lover; however, when Renee--an elusive sort dedicated to New School-style self-improvement--proves to be cruelly fickle, Sears promptly finds himself in a low-key, tender affair with. . . Renee's middle-aged doorman. (His "next stop, of course, was a psychiatrist.") Is this love or lewdness? That's a familiar Cheever theme. And the intermingled subplots here involve another Cheever standby: clean, pure water as a symbol of the old verities, of love's cleansing force. Sears, you see, is personally funding an investigation into the polluting of Beasley's Pond up in Connecticut (he loves to skate there), so there is a series of black-comic suburban vignettes tenuously linked to the matter of the Pond: the story of the Italian barber who, poverty-stricken, is hired by the Mafia-like "organization" to oversee the corrupt-government dumping at the Pond; the story of the barber's neighbor Betsy Logan--who gets into a brawl with the barber's pushy wife at the Musak-ridden supermarket, who misplaces her baby on the highway, who finally uses desperate measures (fighting poison with poison) to stop the pollution at Beasley's Pond. And we're explicitly told how all the strands here should connect up: "The clearness of Beasley's Pond seemed to have scoured [ Sears'] consciousness of the belief that his own lewdness was a profound contamination." Yet, despite some elegant stitchwork, Cheever never really overcomes the feeling that these are short-story fragments artificially brought together in an uneasy, uncharacteristically disjointed narrative; and, as a result, the risky maneuvers which are often magical in a seamless Cheever story--sudden jolts of black-comedy, wildly implausible twists of Fate--more often fall flat here. A failure, then? Perhaps. But, like Graham Greene's unsatisfying novella/fable Doctor Fischer of Geneva, this offers distinctive rewards along the way: a handful of moodily haunting images, a few choice ironies, much gorgeous prose--including an inspired, freewheeling sequence in which Sears explains to himself why being rejected by Renee is like being transported to a village in the Balkans. And, however flawed the overall composition here, Cheever readers will probably feel, quite rightly, that such genuine morsels of joyful art are too precious to pass up.