THIS is a story to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night. The dogs are asleep and the saddle horses—Dombey and Trey—can be heard in their stalls across the dirt road beyond the orchard. The rain is gentle and needed but not needed with any desperation. The water tables are equitable, the nearby river is plentiful, the gardens and orchards—it is at a turning of the season—are irrigated ideally. Almost all the lights are out in the little village by the waterfall where the mill, so many years ago, used to produce gingham....
Oh What a Paradise it Seems (1982)
is a wonderful short novel by John Cheever.
Is it only at career's end that skilled but just-sobered writers realize the liberty ordained by any creative effort? That confidence and a little aesthetic gall work wonders?
Oh What a Paradise it Seems evokes not a hint of last things: it is simply four of five story ideas compressed. The result of such compression? Only a diamond.
*A wealthy petty bourgeois gent named Lemuel Sears has skated on Beasley's Pond since childhood. One weekend he shows up to discover the pond turned in to a toxic dump courtesy of local government corruption and mafia.
*Renée Herndon is a woman Sears meets on his own turf in Manhattan. They begin an affair after she insists he keep meeting her in church basements after her AA meetings. Her constant refrain: "You don't understand the first thing about women."
*Sammy Solazzo, local barber in the Beasley's Pond vicinity, shoots the family dog in front of wife and kids because his failing business cannot put groceries on the table. His wife Maria wangles him a job with the Salazzocrime outfit: overseeing toxic dumping at the Pond.
*Betsey Logan, neighbor to Sam and Maria Solazzo, is driven crazy by a symbol of her neighbors' newfound wealth: wind chimes.
*Environmentalist named Horace Chisholm is enlisted by Sears in defense of Beasley's Pond.
*Eduardo, elevator operator at Rene's building, with whom Sears has a passionate homosexual encounter, then a strong male friendship.
Like Fitzgerald in Gatsby, Cheever is working flat-out to knit together a framework of human interaction and social solidarity constantly threatened with collapse.
A seemingly modest yet superb evocation of a world gone with the wind.
….It was late when they reached the inn. Sears was disappointed but not surprised to find his inn flanked by two fried-food shops. The inn had changed ownership many, many times since he had been there. They drank a lot at the bar but whenever they mentioned fishing the barman changed the subject. The kitchen was closed and they ate sandwiches for supper. In their room they watched a show on television and went together to bed. Sears woke up. He had no idea of the hour but it was that hour when one is given the illusion of insight. He went to the window. The fried-food places were closed but the window was open and the smell of fried food filled the room.
t was the smell of fried food that seemed to fill his consciousness. He thought, but only for a moment, of fried food as a new aberration like the strip with its cut-rate outlets and drive-in peep shows. He hastily amended this random thought with the knowledge that fried food had been one of the first things to be smelled on the planet. After the discovery of love, the importance of hunting and the constancy of the solar system came the smell of frying food. Even now, at the end of harvest in the most inaccessible of the Carpathians the shepherds come down from the mountains with their herds in the autumn to hear gypsy fiddlers and a snareless drum and smell sausages rotating over charcoal. It was barbarous—it disclaimed authority—and its magic was malnutrition, acne and grossness. It was indigestible and highly
odorous and would be, if you were unlucky, the last thing you smelled on your way to the executioner's block. And it was portable. You had to be able to eat it as you sat in a saddle or rode on a Ferris wheel or walked the midways and alleys of some country fair. You had to be able to eat it with your fingers, picking it from a cornucopia of leaves or bark or human skin while you paddled your war canoe or marched into battle. They were eating fried food when they made the first human sacrifice. Eggplant was being fried in the Colosseum when they broke the philosopher on the wheel and fed the saints to the lions. They were eating fried food when they hung the witches, quartered the pretender and crucified the thieves. Public executions were our first celebrations and this was holiday food. It was also the food for lovers, gamblers, travelers and nomads. By celebrating and extolling fried food, all the great highways of the world kept alive our early memories of itinerant hunters and fishermen when we possessed no history and very little vision. It was the food for spiritual vagrants.
Eduardo was sleeping noisily when Sears returned to bed. Sears had been told that such lovers were always thieves, liars, felons, and sometimes murderers, but he thought he had never known anyone so honest. He felt then a surge of lewdness and with this some revelation that these caverns of his nature would never enjoy coherence. What he felt for Eduardo seemed more like nostalgia than the adventurousness of traditional love but it felt no less powerful. He saw then that if he was truly seeking purity he would never find it in himself.....
10 November 2018