I bought Bullet Park by John Cheever as I was concerned my obsession with Richard Yates was stopping me reading around the ‘crushing reality of the American Dream’ genre. Good news, I appear to love more than one form of this morbid brand of realism. I say morbid, it’s more like exposing a religion.
‘Eliot Nailles loves his wife and son to distraction; Paul Hammer is a bastard named after a common household tool. Neighbours in Bullet Park, the two become fatefully linked by the mysterious binding power of their names in Cheever’s sharp and funny hymn to the dubious normality of the American suburbs.’
There is something chilling about the suburbs, where it is important to be normal and fit in with your neighbours. Especially in the 50s and 60s, bound tightly by the Patriarchal code. Eliot and Nellie Nailles live a controlled, sheltered existence. During the novel their son, Tony, experiences a breakdown and refuses to get out of bed. The majority of the novel is Nailles and Nellie trying to ‘fix’ their son before people find out.
The synopsis of Bullet Park led me to believe Hammer and Nailles would get into trouble together, but that wasn’t the case at all. Hammer’s narrative begins well into the novel, a sociopathic journey through a fairly ordinary and privileged life. After his grandmother dies he visits his mother for Christmas, a fairly useless individual more concerned with her own ‘growth’ than the life of her child. She hates ‘normality’ and believes she sees straight through the suburban dream. Telling Hammer about what she would do to expose this seeming Idyl, Hammer suddenly decides he shall do just what his mother describes and slowly relocates himself to Bullet Park.
What Hammer does is fairly dramatic, and humorous, yet, it was not this that made me laugh. Cheever ends the novel highlighting the damage and rot that lies beneath the veneer of the suburbs. People may seem wholesome, but they live fractured lives and do questionable things.
Authors like Cheever and Yates are not always the easiest to read, but it is the after effect of their fiction that makes reading them so worthwhile.
Have you read anything by John Cheever?