Often where and when you read a book can influence whether you enjoy a book. There can be something magical about a time and a place and the perfect book. I read Haruki Murakami‘s “Norwegian Wood” about three months after I had moved to Japan. 1 The book slapped me across my gob and I was dizzy afterward. How insightful and subtle was this, I thought, and a perfect companion for the culture that I had been trying to settle into. The book took on a mythical status in my mind for years afterward.
I had been reading John Cheever‘s “The Wapshot Chronicle” for a week before I went on vacation to Camp Wandawega 2 and brought it along. It was dragging a little for me. I had read many of Cheever’s best short stories. My favorite among them “Goodbye, My Brother” and had been looking for a copy of “Wapshot” for some time. 3 It’s the story of Leander Wapshot and his sons, Moses and Coverly. The novel centers around the boys and their adolescence and their eventual young adulthood. The story fluctuates between St. Botolphs, a port city in Massachusetts, and then the traipsing of the two sons after they leave the nest.
“By a retrospective view of the past may I find wisdom to govern and improve the future more profitably.”
Cheever’s writing can be dense and complex and the guy has a vocabulary that would make Webster blush. I think this is what turned me off initially. I talked about how having “user-friendly” books is often better as travel companions. Cheever, it seemed, didn’t fit this category, but I wanted to finish the book. On the first day of vacation, I poured a glass of Scotch 4 and sat in an Adirondack chair and with the lake and sun surrounding me, dove in.
The line which switched a light on for me was not Cheever’s, but Shakespeare‘s. Leander, in one of his witty moments, says that he wants Prospero’s words from “The Tempest” recited at his wake:
“Our revels now are ended. These actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.”
What the line signified for me was a parallel to Shakespeare’s work. I dug into some of my notes 5 from my most recent reading of “The Tempest.” What I found was, for me, proof that Cheever wanted to draw a parallel between “Wapshot” and “The Tempest.” On the surface we have an island that is described as a prison, a place not unlike St. Botolphs, since it too tends to trap people. Water and drowning—I don’t want to ruin anything for you—play significant roles in both the book and the play. But the most glaring parallel is the thin line between “man” and “monster.” The world is a place full of both and as Moses and Coverly surge into the world they must find out which one they are and how to recognize it in other people.
“What a tender thing, then, is a man.”
Shakespeare scholar Peter Holland wrote that the play “seeks to examine human behavior in a world that proves, with increasingly dizzying paradoxicality, to be both real and unreal, actual and artifice.” The boys and Leander, while wondering in St. Botolphs all by himself, realize that world is one with incredible beauty and undeniable pain, a world complicated and complex, a world both “actual and artifice.”
“Then, before the rain began, the old place appeared to be, not a lost way of life or one to be imitated, but a vision of life as hearty and fleeting as laughter and something like the terms by which he lived.”
There is a pleasure in seeing the boys grow up and move away. A pleasure in seeing them start to understand the world by understanding their past and respecting where they came from. Nothing drives me mad more than a person who doesn’t respect and honor where they came from. My hometown might be a cluttered hodgepodge of empty storefronts and dimly-lit dive bars, but it’s where I came from and it always will be. Moses and Coverly eventually realize the importance of their heritage and mostly it’s due to their father. Leander truly steals the show in this book. Leander’s epistolary-like chapters are dynamite, if somewhat cumbersome to read. And the advice he gives to his sons will forever be one of my favorite passages:
“Never put whisky in hot water bottle crossing borders of dry states or countries. Rubber will spoil taste. Never make love with pants on. Beer on whisky, very risky. Whisky on beer, never fear. Never eat apples, peaches, pears, etc. while drinking whisky except long French-style dinners, terminating with fruit. Other viands have mollifying effect. Never sleep in moonlight. Known by scientists to induce madness. Should bed stand beside window on clear night draw shades before retiring. Never hold cigar at right-angles to fingers. Hayseed. Hold cigar at diagonal. Remove band or not as you prefer. Never wear red necktie. Provide light snorts for ladies if entertaining. Effects of harder stuff on frail sex sometimes disastrous. Bathe in cold water every morning. Painful but exhilarating. Also reduces horniness. Have haircut once a week. Wear dark clothes after 6 P.M. Eat fresh fish for breakfast when available. Avoid kneeling in unheated stone churches. Ecclesiastical dampness causes prematurely gray hair. 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.”
We can learn a great many lessons from our elders. Though they might be different from us in drastic ways, as the eccentric Aunt Honora proves time and again in the book, these people from our past are rich with knowledge. The book opened up for me and I thought, after reflecting there by the lake, how much I truly enjoyed it and how wonderful Cheever’s writing is when given the care and attention it deserves. Maybe it was the setting—those blue waters and sun reflecting off them—but the book resonated with me.
- I taught and lived in a small fishing village for a year. ↩
- I took my Impala. It was magical. ↩
- I find books in various ways, but I use lists and recommendations from friends most frequently. “Wapshot” is on the Modern Library list of best novels and I’m making my way through that list. ↩
- Balvenie 14-year, aged in rum casks. It was delicious. ↩
- I’m fully aware of how nerdy this makes me. What’s worse is that the notes are in Moleskines. I hate myself. ↩