I should say at the outset that while Bullet Park is a good book, and in my opinion a great book, it is not a sound book.
Cheever is rightly (though myopically) criticized for never having really solved the novel, and most of the five he wrote, including both Bullet Park and even the one generally considered his best, Falconer, show his struggle plainly: He was a peerless short story writer, and when he takes on the novel it’s a bit like a baseball player who never really learned how to swing a golf club. He may score well, but watching him, there’s always something off. If you care most about a beautiful golf swing, stay away from Cheever generally, and Bullet Park especially.
Bullet Park is divided into three parts. It begins with the third-person account of Eliot Nailles, a typical Cheever suburbanite who commutes to the city from the titular Westchester (we presume) village, where he works as a chemist for a mouthwash called (in my all-time favorite example of Cheever’s ear for the absurd) Spang. Nailles is a good man, but incomplete, to say the least. He loves his wife, Nellie, immoderately, though she’s as useless and empty as an ornamental vase. And he loves his only child, Tony, even when Tony announces one morning that he would prefer not to leave his bed, not because he’s ill in any specific way, just because he feels “sad.” For Eliot, a simple-minded optimist who keeps his eyes to the sky no matter what befalls him, the idea that you would choose anything but action, that you would look anywhere but up, that you could ever let a little thing like your emotions slow you down, clashes so totally with his view of the world that he’s simply stumped by Tony’s plight. Nailles, after all, can’t even fathom why he himself needs a powerful tranquilizer just to get on the train to work every morning. The plight of Tony, who stays in bed for months, consumes a large part of Nailles’s section.
If it feels like there’s something missing from the Nailles character, that’s because there is: namely, the character from the book’s first-person second section, Paul Hammer. Hammer is everything Nailles isn’t. The bastard son of a batty, vagabond mother and an absent father whose defining characteristic was a physique that made him a sculptor’s model for shirtless statues all over the world, Hammer represents instability, rootlessness, irregularity, and chaos of the mind, spirit and emotions—in short, everything the suburbs promise to solve. Where Nailles is utterly simple and unable to comprehend the intricacies of the world, Hammer is unfathomably complex and unable to comprehend himself. He wanders the globe, drinking continuously and pursued by a “cafard,” a crushing depression that seems able to follow him anywhere except, he finds, into a room with yellow walls. This is Hammer’s only refuge. Ultimately Hammer decides, in one of the book’s many unsignalled and unexplained left-hand turns, that his only choice is to move to Bullet Park and murder someone as a sacrifice for the sinful conformity represented by the suburbs. Or something like that. The clash of the two characters, brief after the book-long build-up, comprises the book’s third and final act.
It’s said that Cheever was once wounded by a student who told him she loved his work because it’s “funny.” But he needn’t have been. The student may have put it badly, but it’s impossible to separate the humor from the blackness in any of Cheever’s work, especially Bullet Park. This novel is funny the way Van Gogh’s paintings are pretty, the way the Rolling Stones’ “Midnight Rambler” is catchy, or the way Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is gripping. That is to say that calling Bullet Park funny is accurate but doesn’t begin to capture the horror of its vision, the violence of its emotions, or the weirdness and unpredictability of the narrative.
The first thing readers generally notice—and are bothered by—about Bullet Park is the names he’s chosen for the characters. The first time I read it, I was crestfallen. Cheever was my hero, and I thought, “Really? Hammer and Nailles? That’s the best you could do?” It seems lazy, immature, obvious and worse. It seems like the blunt, primitive humor of the creatively insufficient. But that name pairing is the first indication of the reckless, fuck-all attitude Cheever brings to this glorious, troubling tangle of a story. It’s easy to assume, given the realistically described settings, the (at a glance) conventional approach to the characters, and the familiarity of the milieu (which Cheever more or less invented and then went on to deconstruct in much of his later work) that this is a realist novel. And, having made this assumption, you instantly begin to judge it according to the success of its verisimilitude.
But as the names of the two main characters indicate, this is Cheever at his most boldly archetypal, and Bullet Park is less a physical place than a state of mind. Namely, Cheever’s state of mind. The book was written as Cheever began to engage in his final, life-altering descent into alcoholism. It was published in 1969, and by 1975 Cheever was separated from his wife, creatively eviscerated, ensconced in his delusions and narcissism, drinking continuously from the first light of morning until the darkness closed in around him, and staggering through a farce of a visiting professorship at Boston University. He was, in short, committing a slow suicide, and Bullet Park is his snapshot from the edge of the precipice, before the rapid descent began. From that vantage point, he had a prime view of the chasm below, and what a sight it was.
If you read the jacket of Bullet Park, it will tell you it’s about “the death of the American dream,” but after reading the book itself, this blurb can only seem like a piece of empty marketing tripe composed by some publishing house minion who probably hadn’t even cracked the book. It’s at once too limited and too grandiose a description of what goes on within its pages. It also gives the book, in a way, too much credit. It suggests that Cheever was essentially in command of his powers, crafting a piece of art that reflected some considered vision. But Bullet Park is not one of those perfect, tour-de-force novels that leave you in awe of the possibilities of the form, like Lolita or Babbitt. It is, to be fair, something of a mess. The ending is rushed (though, for me, devastating), the parts don’t necessarily hang together into a whole, and it’s full of incomplete thoughts and unexplained details. In Bullet Park, it feels as if Cheever is at best fitfully in charge. The book is not a novel, it’s a vision of hell. It’s Cheevers anguished cry from the edge of oblivion.
Cheever biographer Blake Bailey was asked, during a talk in Boston last year, why Cheever’s reputation is so in decline, how he could be so revered by writers and those readers who find their way to him, but so dogged by poor book sales, so increasingly excluded from anthologies, so forgotten after a career of such renown. Bailey suggested there were several reasons for this, the most telling being that it’s hard to categorize Cheever. Bullet Park makes the problem clear. Readers expecting a realist novel, something decisive and clear in its intentions, something noted yoyo-dieting middlebrow tastemaker Oprah Winfrey might endorse, are bound to be disappointed. Bullet Park is a joy to read, a powerful example of how incapable Cheever was of composing, no matter the disarray of his life, anything less than a sonorous sentence. But it is not an easy book, and it is not a book that leaves you with a great many answers to the problems it raises. It is not neat. But then again, when it comes to literature, movies, or art of any kind, I personally believe perfection can be the enemy of greatness: If an artist has spent too much time tying up all the loose ends, tightening up the structure, crafting the nuance of the characters, and teasing out the themes, he or she may have left something out. That something, for me, is often the mysterious part, the part of art that we can sense without necessarily understanding, the part that moves us and has meaning for us even when we can’t point to its origin or exact character. In other words, perfect art, for me, often lacks the thing that makes it art. What’s left is an admirable but hollow exercise in craft that leaves us entertained, maybe, but untouched. Give me a daring failure any day. Give me Bullet Park.