There comes a stage when you do it. You move to the suburbs.
You’re no longer cool, you’re no longer hip. Bars offer nowhere to sit; clubs blast music too loud, new music acts are inexplicable. You start to appreciate things you never even noticed before – a nice view! Wildflowers! Birds! A nicely tended flowerbed! Your youthful highjinks are but a dream. And, of course, most significantly, everyone pops sprogs and never talks to you ever again unless or until you do. So you move on out to the suburbs where you can accommodate the sprogs and have an excuse for not going out to the nightspots ever again as they’re too damn far away.
But we know, don’t we, from literature, that the suburbs are dire, soulless places. In fact:
“Oh damn them all … 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 ocean for fish to feed the mink whose skins they wear and damn their shelves on which there rests a single book – a copy of the telephone directory, bound in pink brocade. Damn their hypocrisy, damn their cant, damn their credit cards, damn their discounting the wilderness of the human spirit, damn their immaculateness, damn their lechery and damn them above all for having leached from life that strength, malodorousness, colour, and zeal that give it meaning. Howl, howl, howl.”
It’s practically Kerouac, or indeed my younger self (who hated Kerouac, but in the suburbs at least there is common ground.) Howl! For the suburban life would be too empty. But it’s actually John Cheever’s Bullet Park. With an accolade by Joseph Heller on the jacket, you can rightly expect to find satire – but the tirade above isn’t the climax of the book. Far from it – it’s on page 3. It’s an expected literary theme, sent up right at the start of a novel about the suburbs to unsettle everyone. For Cheever almost comes out fighting for the ‘burbs. In direct opposition to the passage above, halfway through the book comes this speech, pragmatic genius:
“Well, I suppose there plenty to be sad about if you look around, but it makes me sore to have people always chopping at the suburbs. I’ve never understood why. When you go to the theatre they’re always chopping at the suburbs but I can’t see that playing golf and raising flowers is depraved. The living is cheaper out here and I’d be lost if I couldn’t get some exercise. People seem to make some connection between respectability and moral purity that I don’t get…. All kinds of scandalous things happen everywhere but just because they happen to people who have flowers gardens doesn’t mean that flower gardens are wicked. For instance, Charlie Stringer was indicted last year for sending pornography through the mails… He lives in one of those Tudor houses on Hansen Circle and he has a pretty wife and three children. Flower gardens. Trees. A couple of poodles. The critics would say: Look, look, look what a big facade he’s constructed to conceal the fact that he deals in obsceneness and corruption, but…why should a man who deals in filth have to live in a cesspool? He’s a bastard for sure but why shouldn’t a bastard want to water his grass and play softball with the kids?”
As you can tell, it’s a problematic defence – given by a character who is a loving husband and father, but also addicted to prescription drugs to get him through life and with his son in deep depression. For Cheever isn’t writing propaganda, but an at times hilarious, pragmatic view of that life which is no better or worse than life elsewhere. It’s unusual, and rather great.
The rest of the book is a bit weird. There’s a psychotic murderer, for one. That bit isn’t so successful, and it ends in a terrible haste as if Cheever wants to get to supper.
Still, psycho or not, it made me laugh about my plans to move suburbs-ward. Cheers, Cheever.