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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Wapshot Scandal

In The Wapshot Scandal, published in January 1964, John Cheever continues the story of the Wapshot family that he began in 1957’s The Wapshot Chronicle. Family history and reputation managed to retain a certain amount of prestige and respect for the Wapshots in tiny St. Botolphs for a decade or two beyond the time that the decline in Wapshot family prospects became evident to outsiders. Now The Wapshot Scandal focuses on the youngest members of the family, brothers Moses and Coverly, as they build new lives for themselves far from the little town in which they grew up. Thankfully, Cousin Honora is also a part of this second Wapshot book and, as it turns out, the contribution she makes to the overall sense of scandal that envelopes the family is a key one.

Moses and Coverly, having successfully secured Honora’s financial support, are now married, with families and careers of their own. But despite Honora’s decision to share what is left of the family fortune with them, neither man is particularly happy with his lot in life because each is married to a troubled woman and tied to a job he secretly despises. Honora, in the meantime, still reigns in the big family home in St. Botolphs where she lives alone with her longtime housekeeper, the closest relationship she has in the world despite what either woman might say about it.

Honora, as spirited and eccentric as ever (and described by Cheever as looking “a little like George Washington might have looked had he lived to be so old”), does not recognize the precarious decline the Wapshots are enduring until she is forced to match wits with an unhappy IRS employee who appears suddenly at her door. The resulting confrontation, and Honora’s approach to solving the problem, will leave the reader smiling in admiration as the elderly woman proves to be more than a match for her young challenger.

Despite its humor, however, The Wapshot Scandal is overall a much darker book than the one in which Cheever first introduced the family. Life in the suburbs, the lifestyle chosen by Moses and Coverly, is portrayed as bleak and despairing, a world often dominated by alcohol and adultery, a world in which hard work and doing the right thing for one’s family are not always appreciated or rewarded. The Wapshot Scandal offers a much harsher brand of satire than the comic version of its predecessor and it leads nicely to Cheever’s even grimmer look at the suburbs, his third novel: Bullet Park.

Rated at: 5.0

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