This review originally appeared in New York Magazine, March 15, 1982
JOHN CHEEVER’S Oh What a Paradise It Seems is a compact modern fable meant as celebration and warning to a complicated America the author has loved long and well. The narrator of the book, a sort of omnipotent angel, savvy and saddened, describes a past which is now: “At about this time the high incidence of criminal rapes and robberies made it difficult to get into apartments in some neighborhoods. . . . At the time of which I’m writing the purity of the water was of inexorable interest-far more important than dynasties.”
Water, that primal element and necessity of life, is at the heart of Cheever’s endangered paradise, and its protection links the various players in this parable. Lemuel Sears, “an old man but not yet infirm,” is an executive whose company manufactures intrusion systems for computer containers. He is a man to whom “some traces or hints of caste seemed necessary . . . for the comprehension and enjoyment of the world,” a man who fears aging and the loss of love. Even more, he fears the darkening refrain of the times: ‘That things had been better was the music, the reprise of his days. . . . Things had been better, things were getting worse, and the lengthening moral and intellectual shadows that one saw spreading over the Western World were final.” A traverse of water seems to Sears “the bridge that spans the mysterious abyss between our spiritual and our carnal selves,” and the fleetness he feels on skates “seemed to have the depth of an ancient experience.” Seeking solace and connection, he takes a train out of the city to the village of Janice for an afternoon of skating on Beasley’s Pond. He finds the site being used as a dump, topped by the carcass of a dead dog. Sears considers the despoiled pond “a disaster with a power of melancholy” and hires a lawyer to investigate. When he is notified of the lawyer’s murder, Sears retains Horace Chisholm, an ex-biology teacher now thanklessly working full-time for the environment, to continue the fight.
Sears’s involvement with the issue of Beasley’s Pond proceeds in tandem with his attraction to Renee Herndon, a woman easily sensual, who spends several nights a week witnessing for abstention (from excesses in food? alcohol? tobacco?-Sears never knows) in various church basements. For Sears, “the memories her appearance summoned involved only brightness,” and the affair is intensified by his quiet knowledge that this passion may be one of the last of its kind for him. The lonely conclusion of their affair is almost foregone, but Sears’s discovery in its aftermath, that lost “Balkans of the spirit,” is a total surprise, and the only development in the book that is not quite believable.
Meanwhile, Sammy Salazzo, the financially desperate barber of Janice, is invited through organized-crime connections to be “vice-chairman of the governor’s committee for the impartial uses of Beasley’s Pond.” Neighbor Betsy Logan. young wife of a postal employee, watches strangers come to the Salazzos’ each evening to collect a leather money bag and look over Sammy’. ledger. The arrangement is legal, if not aboveboard; the Janice city fathers have re-zoned the pond for fill and given the property tax-exempt status as a future war memorial: “The feeling clearly had been that they would all be living somewhere else when the drinking water became lethal.” Betsy Logan resents the Salazzos; she resents their involvement with the dumping, and has recently witnessed Sammy’s backyard assassination of the Salazzo family dog, a spectacle both cruel and disheartening.
Underlying this story is the elegance of Cheever’s prose and the intelligence of his concerns. His characters are united in their sense of homelessness. Occupancy in the housing development where the Salazzos and Logans live is “signified by the fact that some sort of brazier for cooking meat over coals stood in the backyard. When the brazier went, it meant the family had gone and the house was for sale.” The houses themselves are of an architecture “all happy ending . . . evolved by a people who were exiles or refugees and who thought obsessively of returning.” Betsy Logan reflects, at the end of a beach day, that everyone else has gone home early, as though “they had received some urgent message to leave . . . like the evacuees of war or more recently like those people who lived near toxic dumps and would have to travel for years, perhaps for a lifetime, seeking a new home.” Horace Chisholm, driving down a highway, realizes he is driving home to a neighborhood “so anonymous and transient that there were no waiters or shopkeepers or bartenders who would greet him.” Chishoim searches “for the memory of some place,” for proof he has once felt himself in “supremely creative touch with his world and his kind. He longed for this as if it were some Country which he had been forced to leave.” Super-highways and their panoramas of merchandising are evidence to Sears that “a truly adventurous people had made a wrong turning and stumbled into a gypsy culture. Here were the most fleeting commitments and the most massive household gods. Beside a porn drive-in movie were two furniture stores whose items needed the strength of two or three men to be moved.”
All the inhabitants of Paradise, as a people, are haunted by the vastly reduced versions of ancient power available to them in their daily lives. Buy Brite, a huge grocery store, is what’s left of “one of the earliest rites of our civilization… those crossroads where men met to barter fish for baskets, greens for meat … where we first grew to know and communicate with one another.” Communication is now rare, and a Brandenberg Concerto, piped in as shoppingcenter Muzak, is recognized by very few. The plethora of fast-food chains similarly echoes an older reality: Fried food was not a new aberration but “one of the first things to be smelled on the planet.” Fast fried food “kept alive our early memories of itinerant hunters and fishermen when we possessed no history…. It was the food for spiritual vagrants.”
It is these vagrants, inclined to nomadism, passionately transient yet yearning for permanence, who have emptied a confusion of possessions and chemicals into Beasley’s Pond. Eventually, it is Betsy Logan’s radical act that saves the pond and the uncaring inhabitants of Janice; hers is a secret act of terrorism undertaken for the right reasons, and it enables Sears, who is privileged and moneyed, one of the few activist members of the “private sector” we hear constantly touted, to set up a legal apparatus that cleans up the water and ensures its continued protection. Throughout the book, Cheever accomplishes a reverence that is not sentimental, “a sense of those worlds around us.” Sears’s sense of his closing years is “that most powerful sense of how singular, in the vastness of creation, is the richness of our opportunity… the great benefice of living here and renewing ourselves with love. What a paradise it seemed!” The reader notes that the angel is speaking, and that Sears, who in a war long past “defended with his life the freedoms of speech, religion and travel,” has, in his twilight protection of Beasley’s Pond, defended his country against its own bad memory and loss of harvest. Cheever, in this timely short novel, has done no less.