Writing last week about endings to novels got me thinking about John Cheever, a writer whose work I've admired for a long, long time. A prep-school dropout, Cheever earned a solid reputation as a short-story writer, but he felt neglected and slighted by critics who thought him incapable of pulling off a novel. Not so. THE WAPSHOT CHRONICLE, published in 1957, and based heavily upon the author's own New England family, won the 1958 National Book Award. It's a story both wildly funny and indescribably sad, with characters who've refused to leave my mind over the thirty-odd years since I first read the book.
Religious faith was a linchpin of Cheever's life; though not a regular churchgoer, he was a committed Episcopalian. On the other hand, I have difficulty taking anything on faith, and the only reasonable reply I can imagine to questions on the existence or the nature of God is "I don't know. I can't know." So, how is it I find the last page of THE WAPSHOT CHRONICLE so deeply satisfying that I can quote it here from memory?
"Fear tastes like a rusty knife, and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord."
That's the conclusion of a note titled "Advice to my Sons," written by Captain Leander Wapshot, the protagonist of Cheever's story, and found in the family Bible by Leander's younger son, Coverly, after the old man's death. When I read that passage, I smiled, closed the book - reluctantly - and said, "Yeah." Spot-on perfect exit lines for Leander, who struggled his life long with demons very much like those that afflicted his creator. Throughout the story, the Captain grappled for meaning, describing his troubled searches through quirky entries in a diary and letters to his sons.