Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982)

by John Cheever

John Cheever was suffering from the cancer that would take his life while he was writing Oh What a Paradise It Seems, and it is a shorter (only 100 pages) than he planned. Perhaps that's why it seems somewhat disjointed, zigzagging between protagonist Lemuel Sears's spring-fall romance and his attempt to fight a pond's being turned into a landfill. For those seeking an introduction to the writer, however, it does display Cheever's elegant prose style, as well as a questing hero and a village somewhere on the New York commuter train line, both typical of his prize-winning short stories.

Although the two strains of Sears's story may not cohere for some readers, Cheever clearly saw connection between a love affair and political activism — both are means by which an aging man seeks renewal. Indeed, as Sears strolls around the pond that ultimately is rescued by someone else's action, his thoughts about nature merge with his memories of his younger lover, bringing him to rhapsodies about the privilege of living on the planet and renewing ourselves with love.

Such lyrical passages weave through a plot that includes murder (of both humans and a dog), organized crime, corrupt politicians, a guiltless homosexual affair, an accidentally abandoned infant, and terrorism with the "right" motivation. A continuous strain is the despoilment of the environment by superhighways, big retailers, and fast-food chains. It seems then somewhat surprising that the pond is finally saved. Perhaps in his last book Cheever, best known as a chronicler of suburban emptiness, was expressing a wish that once pastoral villages could be restored to a state of paradise.


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