Cheddar, Cheever, and the Burbs


Arts & Culture

An illustration from Muriel Stanek’s How People Live in the Suburbs, 1970.

Fifty years ago, John Cheever published The Wapshot Scandal, his second novel. Like many second novels, it’s more ambitious and more playful than its predecessor, the work of a writer who suspects he’s better than he feared. The traditional form suddenly seems boring, the same old themes threaten a categorization that the writer doesn’t want, and the writer—encouraged by praise, validated by awards, perhaps softened by income—realizes he can write just about anything. So he does.

The Wapshot Scandal begins where The Wapshot Chronicle ended: with the Wapshot family leaving the safety of St. Botolphs and searching for fulfillment in more modern suburban communities. An acrid whiff of cynicism rises from the page: we know this won’t end well, Cheever knows we know, and now it’s a matter of how and when. Moses and Coverley Wapshot bring their wives to Proxmire Manor and Talifer, respectively; the first is an archetype of the suburban nightmare, the second an archetype of a Cold War community, built around a missile-research facility.

Scandal is very much of its time, but even in its time the satire was well-trod: husbands drink too much, wives betray, wealth corrodes, families splinter, sex—granted or withheld—destroys. Cheever’s cynicism isn’t unique; he never claimed it was. What was, and what remains, unique, are passages like this:

The village, he knew, had, like any other, its brutes and its shrews, its thieves, and its perverts, but like any other it meant to conceal these facts under a shrine of decorum that was not hypocrisy but a guise or mode of hope.

This is what made Cheever special: he understood that the desperate idealism behind existential decay is still idealism. Which brings me to, well, me.


In 2008 my wife and I made a terrible error: we left Boston and moved forty minutes west of the city, into the kind of town you drive through while driving somewhere else. If you allow yourself a few minutes to daydream, you might imagine what it would be like to shop in the general store or browse the antique shop that sells vintage baseball gloves and old pitchforks or picnic on the front lawn of First Congregational, where children hunt for Easter eggs and wait in line for pony rides. A cemetery stands within a whisper’s distance of the church. The headstones are thin and barely legible: Mortimer Bent, Asenath Colburn, (Lieutenant) Drury Fairbank. Summer lilies line the streets. We have one traffic light. Stores close at nine, homes go dark around ten. Everybody smiles. Everybody is nice. But the parents are always tired and their children have too many toys, and an undercurrent of anxiety manifests itself in fatuous obsessions like lawn care, home improvements, cars, safety, children’s birthday parties, and booze.

Last year, our neighbors threw a birthday party for their four-year-old son. The guest list seemed to include every family within thirty square miles, a guest list designed to preserve the niceties of playgroups and safeguard against the possibility of an unintentional snub. My wife went with our then six-month-old daughter, because my wife is a better person than I am. I stayed home, smoked a joint, watched a little TV, and stared out the window at the birthday party across the street. They had a kiddie pool on the front lawn and a bouncy house in the back. I hate bouncy houses. I hate them the way I hate sports radio and strip malls. I hate them the way I hate yoga culture and Disneyland and franchise restaurants, the way I hate driving, the way I hate sitcoms and beer commercials, the way I hate myself whenever I talk about how much I hate this and how much I hate that, because it shows I don’t understand the whole desperate idealism thing.

But the suburbs don’t work. They can’t work. Whatever their initial purpose—to escape the confines of urban life, to provide housing for a population no longer geographically tethered to their job—suburbs quickly became bourgeois plantations. I know what plantation implies, and white flight is too cutesy, so let’s call it white terror. Let’s call it what nobody wants to call it: scared, tedious, anxious, overmedicated, under-stimulated, conformist white folk, surrounded by bullshit homes carved from a similarly bullshit aesthetic.

Of course, the suburbs still exist. Their resilience has to mean something. It’s possible the suburbs work for a lot of people, though I’ve yet to meet someone for whom the suburbs actually worked, really worked, not in a I’m convincing myself this works way, or in a I’m scared of everything and the suburbs are filled with nothing so we should be safe here way.

Wait—that’s not true. I did meet someone. More on that later.


So: back to The Wapshot Scandal. I don’t recommend you read The Wapshot Scandal. Cheever is an immaculate stylist, better than Capote and equal to Salinger, but we can stop trying to convince ourselves his novels were any good. They fail at fiction’s most basic charge: be interesting. Cheever’s novels are boring, and The Wapshot Scandal is the most boring of all. The narrative is wandering and self-indulgent, Cheever wastes time on random characters, the paragraphs are too long, and the plot is constantly sacrificed in the service of theme; subsequently, some academics consider the book important. A few have even labeled it postmodern, which is a fancy way of saying that its deficiencies are really, you know, deliberate. I’m not buying it. The Wapshot Scandal is a lousy book. This does nothing to diminish Cheever’s legacy, of course. You don’t kick Zeus off the throne because he had a bad day.


On a wintry afternoon during my second year in suburbia I found myself wandering the aisles at Whole Foods, a store that, even in the city, is suburban. I ended at the cheese section and asked the cheesemonger if she had any sharp cheddar. She offered a sample. I said:

“Do you have anything sharper? Really sharp, like tongue-bleeding sharp?”

She frowned. And there it was: the disapproving lip-curl, the raised chin, the defensive stance.

“This is a family store,” she said. “If you’re looking for sharper cheddar, I suggest you try the city.”

That actually happened. Call it postmodern.

The person for whom the suburbs really work is the father of the boy whose birthday party I snubbed. The father and I are friends. His name is Jim, and he likes just about everything I hate: he eats at franchise restaurants, he hates the city, he listens to the Eagles, he rented that bullshit bouncy house, and he likes huge birthday parties with swarms of screaming children and bored parents standing around getting drunk. I cannot fathom his taste. I assume he finds my tastes precious, perhaps elitist, definitely irritating. But we’re friends. I don’t know how it happened.

A few months back I asked him why he lives in the suburbs. Doesn’t he see the banality, the soul-destroying sameness, the vapid culture built around fear and uniformity? Doesn’t he realize the city is objectively better?

He shrugged. “I like living here. I don’t care about that other stuff.”

“But why not?”

“Because I like living here.”

This ending is cheap but salient: John Cheever lived in the suburbs for the last twenty-one years of his life. “He was on the board of trustees of his children’s private school,” a 2009 piece from the New York Times explains. “He liked to dig his hands in the soil and plant apple trees. He delighted in quiet walks with his Labrador retriever and liked bicycling from his house to the Teatown Lake Reservation.”

He even drove the fire truck once. “That,” his wife told the paper, “was a big thrill.”

Micah Nathan is a best-selling novelist and frequent contributor to Vanity Fair. He considers John Cheever the greatest short-story writer in the English language.