Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Short Take: Bullet Park, John Cheever

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

John Cheever pillories bourgeois suburbia in his entertaining 1969 novel Bullet Park, but he redeems it as well. The book follows two protagonists. The first is Eliot Nailles, a mouthwash marketing executive who lives in the town of the book's title. His life, like his neighbors, is about maintaining the appearance of perfection. But things are far from perfect. He and his wife love their son, but the boy is indifferent to school and suffering from depression. Eliot is also wrestling with an addiction to prescription drugs, his mother is on her deathbed, and of course there's always the annoying superficiality of the neighbors. Cheever's other protagonist is Paul Hammer, a misanthrope with a trust fund, born out of wedlock, and drifting through life. He moves to Bullet Park with one objective: to murder Eliot's son, to him a symbol of the traditional family life he has never known. The story's moral, dramatized by the conflict between the main characters, is that for all the pretension of suburban life, the bonds of family it is meant to support are still very real. Cheever gives full play throughout to his amazing gifts: the knack for characterization, the eye for tropes organic to the material, and the beautifully fluid prose. Bullet Park isn't quite at the level of Cheever's best short stories--in particular, readers may feel the climax is handled too abruptly--but it's a rich work of fiction nonetheless.

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