Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Wapshot Chronicle

I came to this book without any expectations. As much as it shows ignorance, I had never heard of this book or its author (John Cheevers) before the Modern Library list.

From the outset, the book was mildly humorous and quirky. It’s the story of the Wapshot family: Leander and Sarah, their two sons Coverly and Moses, and the aunt with the purse strings, Honora. It’s mildly humous and quirky, however, until the second part, when I encountered this: “Writer’s epistolary style (Leander wrote) formed in tradition of Lord Timothy Dexter, who put all punctuation marks, prepositions, adverts, articles, etc., at the end of communication and urged reader to distribute same as he saw fit. West Farm. Autumn day. 3 p.m. Nice sailing breeze from NW quarter. Golden light. Glittering riffle on water. Hornets on ceiling. An old house. Roofs of St. Botolphs in the distance. Old river-bottom burg today. Family prominent there once. Name memorialized in many things in vicinity; lakes, roads, hills even. Wapshot Avenue now back street in honkytonk beach resort further south. Smell of hot dogs, popcorn, also salt air and grinding music from old merry-go-round calliope. Matchwood cottages for rent by day, week or season…” Fortunately, that doesn’t last for the rest of the book.

More than anything, it’s the story of three emasculated men. First, Honora accidently sees Moses having some fun with a female house guest while she’s hiding in a closet. Don’t ask. Then she turns into the mean old aunt with the money. She tells Leander that the boys need to get out on their own and she puts Leander’s boat (which she owns) up for sale. Honora actually owns pretty much all of the Wapshot stuff, including their farm. The sale of the boat falls through, but Leander wrecks it, and his wife turns it into a gift shop. Both of the boys eventually get married, but of course they both have issues with their wives, which leaves them further emasculated. Leander pretends to shoot himself; Leander sends fake letters to his sons saying that he’s dying. Coverly’s dumb wife leaves him (briefly), and Moses’s wife is (for a time) under the thumb of rich old Justina, who gives the couple two twin beds for their wedding present. And then we “come to the unsavory or homosexual part of our tale.” Yes, Cheever actually wrote that. In the end, Coverly’s wife comes back, Justina’s house burns down, and Leander dies.

When you come to a book without expectations, it's hard to be disappointed. And I was not disappointed by The Wapshot Chronicle. But I wasn't wowed and/or awed either. Funny, but not too funny. A little strange, but maybe not strange enough. All in all, not bad...not great, but not bad.

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