John Cheever’s Bullet Park

I’ve always enjoyed John Cheever’s interesting take on suburbia, though I am primarily familiar with Cheever the short story writer as opposed to Cheever the novelist. After all, if you haven’t taken a look at Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” then you really need to do so (though you’ve probably been living under a rock if you haven’t run across it before). As such, I was interested to see what Cheever’s Bullet Park was all about.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for A. M. Homes.)

I’m not entirely sure how this one shakes out on the suburban front. Bullet Park, the place as opposed to the title itself, definitely fits the concept of flawed suburbia:

The lights of Powder Hill twinkled, its chimneys smoked and a pink plush toilet-seat cover flew from a clothesline. Seen at an improbably distance by some zealous and vengeful adolescent, ranging over the golf links, the piece of plush would seem to be the imprimatur, the guerdon, the accolade and banner of Powder Hill behind which marched, in tight English shoes, the legions of wife-swapping, Jew-baiting, booze-fighting spiritual bankrupts. Oh damn them all, thought the adolescent. Damn the bright lights by which no one reads, damn the continuous music which no one hears, damn the grand pianos that no one can play, damn the white houses mortgaged up to their rain gutters, damn them for plundering the oceans for fish to feed the mink whose skins they wear and damn their shelved on which there rests a single book–a copy of the telephone directory, bound in pink brocade.

In this setting, we have an unstably complacent suburban man:

Nailles’s house (white) was one of those rectilinear Dutch Colonials with a pair of columns at the door and an interior layout so seldom varied that one could, standing in the hallway with its curved staircase, correctly guess the disposition of every stick of furniture and almost every utility from the double bed in the northeast master’s room through the bar in the pantry to the washing machine in the laundry basement. Nailles was met in the hall by an old red setter names Tessie whom he’d trained and hunted with for twelve years. Tessie was getting deaf and now, whenever the screen door slammed, she would mistake this for the report of a gun and trot out onto the lawn, ready to retrieve a bird or a rabbit. Tessie’s muzzle, her pubic hair and her footpads had turned white and it was difficult for her to climb stairs. In the evening, when he went to bed, Nailles would give her a boost. Sometimes she cried out in pain…He decided that should a time come when she would have to be killed he would take her out behind the rose garden and shoot her himself…Nailles still hunted with her in the autumn.

We also have an insane anti-suburban man who decides to kill the unstably complacent suburban man’s son:

We marched through the Venezia to the Colosseum. We walked proudly, men, women and children, in spite of the shuffling sound. This grief which, in my case, we accidentally shared reminded me of how little else there was that we had in common. I felt the strongest love for these strangers for the space of three city blocks. There was a memorial service in the Colosseum–nothing as moving as the procession but when I went back to the hotel I felt well. We flew back to New York soon afterwards and it was sitting on a beach that following summer (I had already seen the picture in the dental journal) that I decided, on the strength of a kite string, that my crazy old mother’s plan to crucify a man was sound and that I would settle in Bullet Park and murder Nailles. Sometime later I changed my victim to Tony.

Really, that’s the book in a nutshell. Things proceed from there.

I don’t want to talk a whole lot more about details, or give a whole lot more analysis, because I worry about spoiling the book for people. The details are pretty significant, and the book isn’t that long. Frankly, I may have said too much already. Of course, I believe Bullet Park came out in 1967. It’s probably long enough that I don’t have to worry about spoilers.

Now, the summary on the back of my copy of Bullet Park says that the boy is saved but the American dream dies. However, Bullet Park seems just as critical of Hammer, the anti-suburban man, as Nailles, the suburban man. I’m not quite sure what to take away from that. Honestly, I’m left puzzled enough that I don’t have a whole lot articulate to say.

Of course…I never expected Cheever to be simple. You probably shouldn’t either.

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