The Library of America series, which continues to grow at a pace of seven or eight volumes per year, devotes two of its 2009 additions to the works of John Cheever. Volume number 189 in the series, titled John Cheever: Complete Novels, presents all five Cheever novels (although Oh What a Paradise It Seems would perhaps be more properly classified as a novella) in the same high quality package that fans of the series have enjoyed since its 1982 inception: lightweight acid-free paper, sewn bindings, and boards covered in durable cloth.
John Cheever is most highly regarded as a short story writer, and writing novels is not something that he found easy. His first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), was almost sixteen years in the making but rewarded Cheever for his efforts by winning the National Book Award in 1958. By the time of the book’s publication, Cheever was already a master short story writer, and some critics of the time complained of the “episodic nature” of the novel. In The Wapshot Chronicle, Cheever uses comic satire to introduce the Wapshots, a formerly prestigious New England family whose fortunes are in obvious decline, and creates several of the memorable characters he would use in his second novel.
The Wapshot Scandal (1964) continues the Wapshot saga through the eyes of its two youngest members, brothers Moses and Coverly, and the family’s elder stateswoman, the wonderfully eccentric Cousin Honora. It takes a darker view of life than Cheever’s first novel but still has some comic moments in the midst of the scandals and tragedies endured by the next Wapshot generation. As in the first novel, the segments of the book dealing with Honora are a delight, ensuring that the character will be long remembered by readers of the Wapshot books.
Cheever continued his trend toward darker and darker novels with Bullet Park (1969), his observation of the bleakness of life as it is lived in the suburbs. The book, written from two distinct points of view, takes a surprising turn when the Nailles family meets the aptly named Hammer family. Despite his tendency toward darker novels, Cheever’s regular readers could not have expected anything as disturbing as his fourth novel, Falconer (1977). This prison novel explores the mind of former college professor Ezekiel Farragut, a man likely to spend the remainder of his life behind bars for the crime of murdering his brother in a sudden fit of rage. Falconer is a frank portrayal of sex within the walls of a maximum-security prison, even to a level of detail that some might find offensive. The novel, however, was well received and became a bestseller for Cheever.
The last of Cheever’s novels, Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982), was published shortly before Cheever died of cancer. The book, barely 100-pages long, centers on the sexual relationship between an elderly man and much younger woman. It includes subplots pertaining to Cheever’s environmental concerns and the bisexuality of its main character (a characteristic of many of the characters in Cheever novels).
John Cheever: Complete Novels, totaling a compact 933 pages, is an opportunity for readers to revisit Cheever’s novels quickly and in the order in which they were written, an experience that will offer insight into the man John Cheever was.