New York Johns

by Martha Conway

One recent weekend morning, when I had nearly finished a domestic task so trivial it need not be mentioned -- I was hanging window shades -- I found myself standing on top of my desk among piles of books all written by men named John. One of them, a book called Trust Me by John Updike, managed to loosen itself from the pack, slip itself under my foot, and activate the cellophane library-jacket cover to maximum slickness so that I began a long, graceless, unstoppable descent from desktop to chair (my right foot trying vainly to find a hold on the purple cushioned seat but in fact missing by a very large mark) to bookcase to hardwood floor, ending in a face-down position that must be called sprawled with Trust Me splayed on my back. It was a fall perfect in its humiliation. It was long, it was irreversible, and it could only have been triggered on purpose by Momus, the god of mockery and ridicule, who is, of course, an aging New York white male writer in a pink Oxford cloth shirt with a house in the Hamptons, who may or may not get divorced from his thirty-second wife, and whose first name is John.

It may have been somewhat my fault, having after all gathered these books. I'll admit it, Johns intrigue me. I had taken an armful of them out from the library: John Updike, John Cheever, and -- the great forefather of New York Johns -- John O'Hara. I could not understand why they held such authority and were a literary standard for would-be Johns, since I myself disliked them. What was their secret? I was determined to disrobe them. I began reading them in no order, flipping through the four-hundred-and-some-page books, for Johns as we all know are prolific.

To begin with, I found the language unremarkable in the extreme. There was no word, and no combination of words, that was unexpected or daring. The storylines flowed from one seamlessly unobtrusive sentence to the next. John O'Hara is perhaps least guilty of this, achieving a quirky tilt to his dialogue, although this is absent in the narration. John Cheever is most guilty, allowing himself to write such sentences as "we were happy ever since," or -- here I am picking through stories at random -- "she was nothing, I know, but an idle reverie," or "but the darkness of the old house seemed, each time we went there, to deepen." Compare Cheever's character description, "Donald Wryson's oddness could be traced easily enough to his childhood," to a like sentence by one of my current favorite writers, Denis Johnson: "If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that."

Cheever's sentence gently prods you to read on; Johnson's stops you, makes you picture something. Certainly this is a matter of two different styles, and as I read Cheever, in particular, I was forced to ask myself if my dislike was really a generational prejudice. Perhaps he was more than just a gentle hostess urging more cake. Perhaps his mixed tone of nostalgia and propriety and bitterness was the first of its kind. Perhaps he was a trailblazer in his pitch if not his manner, and it is only because I am overexposed to nostalgia at large that I can't take it, and its undisguised moral underpinnings, at face value.

It's possible. As I continued to read Cheever my initial, strong repulsion faded somewhat and I found I had developed a certain fondness for the writer -- though not the stories -- because he is an historical character: a middle-class white American male fashioned by 1930s society, and as such should be protected from such disillusioning dividends as irony or Watergate or The Simpsons. Still, I do like to be caught off guard every once in a while by an unexpected word or phrase, something that will catch my attention and distract me long enough to let the requisite moral or lesson or epiphany sink in before I can fight it off with the best weapon my generation has: indifference.

But Cheever's language just won't do it. It's as though it doesn't want to call attention to itself -- and this is skillfully done, I'll give him that, it is no mean feat, as he might say, to be so smooth and so retiring. The language will not distract because it is designed not to distract. It is a modest vehicle for what Cheever clearly feels is most important, and that is content.

Updike is the same. Although his sentences are less gentlemanly than Cheever's (I found, for example, Updike is constantly "nailing" woman; "he nailed her," "he should have nailed her," "he would nail her" and other such sentences are held out as if the author is proud of his blunt crude honesty, rather like a child proud of his ability to excrete), they take a humble second seat to content. It bears repeating that this is no easy task, and Updike is indeed a professional: the sentences that do not startle are nevertheless polished little gems, worked over, smooth, solidly well constructed. Each sentence works like snow grooves for cross-country skiers; one glides in the easy tracks towards the writer's thought-out destination.

And what an ugly destination that is. This is, in truth, the reason I dislike these writers so much: I dislike what they have to say of the world. I don't want to admit it, because I feel readers are small-minded if they can only like something that fits their political or social or psychological agenda; if they only like stories with happy endings or epiphanies; if they only like stories where the characters are beautiful or rich. Yet, in the absence of a stirring style, content has to be all, and if you do not like the content, you are out of luck.

And by content I really mean two things: the world the writer evokes, and the writer's judgment of that world. Not all writers judge, but these Johns do. (O'Hara judges least of all. O'Hara is my favorite.) They also all evoke a similar world in various stages of disintegration: the moneyed martini and beach house world where the characters sit around in Adirondack chairs and, as my sister puts it, "may or may not get divorced and who cares."

Johns evoke this world extremely well. Like good politicians, they manage to give us an insider's view of that world, while claiming to be shut out from it, the dark horse, an uncorrupted outsider. Johns' stories are full of cigarettes and country clubs and cocktail parties and ski trips to Vermont (where one's friends have a house) and bored wives and bored husbands and money. The world is the city life of New York, and the country or small town life of the Eastern Seaboard. John O'Hara gets the world before and during and immediately after World War II, Cheever gets the fifties and sixties, and Updike, poor Updike, gets the seventies and eighties and even toddles on today (although one suspects this world is now mainly a re-run). Of course, there is considerable overlap -- O'Hara was still writing in 1966 -- but this works as a general timeline.

In truth it is not so much this world that I dislike, but rather what the Johns have to say about it. They are exposing it -- which is all well and good, expose away, I say, let's see the worst -- but they are doing it in a way that protects their own hides. Updike is really awful this way. Let me be completely honest. Updike is a John of the lowest caliber. He works to advance his own case by exposing another's flaws. He is the type of John who would go to a whore and then justify himself by saying, well, but she was a whore. That is to say, she made him a John by being who she is, and the John himself should not be blamed for his own worst behavior. There is a thread of dislike running through nearly every Updike story, an acute displeasure with people and the world at large, yet he does not include himself in the picture. If ever he asks, What about me? the answer is always, But the others are worse.

This seems to me to be a very privileged way of looking at the world. It is a perception that can only be maintained by someone who does not have to worry about food or money or shelter or place in society, and who has never felt it necessary to look at the world through the eyes of someone who does. It is a perception by someone whose critical faculties are just beginning to bud, but who can so far only use them outwardly, not inwardly. It is, in short, an adolescent perception.

In fact, adolescent is a good adjective for the Johns in more ways than one. Not only do the stories maintain the self-centeredness, confusion, and anger of a fourteen-year-old boy, but the stories are often based on adolescent preoccupations as well. There is a prurient interest in bodies and sex, and a desire to shock based on that interest. I recently read a short story by John Irving in The New Yorker where the story revolved around a dildo. I waited for something interesting to happen, but nothing ever did. Other potentially charged elements lurked in the story -- drug smuggling, a German lover who was more than a little suspicious and trashy, a Muslim country, a dead body, a healthy Iowa farm girl for added contrast -- but they culminated in nothing new. It was as if, like a boy who shows you dirty pictures behind the school yard, just pointing them out was enough. Look, Irving waves, I have a dildo! Well, so what, I'm inclined to answer. Let me see you use it.

Adolescent writing is not limited to Johns, but they are the best at this genre. Over and over again the picture I get, when reading these stories, is of a pimply boy who, to make up for real or imagined defects, draws your attention to the fat girl outside, or tries to improve his standing by bringing dirty pictures to school. And yet Johns seem to believe that they are being courageous by saying or showing the shocking things other people won't say or show. But it is a courage based on short sight. Let us not forget that Johns represent some generations of American males who were raised on the idea of patriarchy, that they were the heads of family, the guardians or leaders of American society. They did not have to grow out of adolescence, maybe -- who would make them? They write from a top dog position, and being on the top of the heap they naturally have limited sight. All they can see is the disintegration of their promised kingdom: the beach houses, the silver collection, the family they are supposed to raise but find tedious.

It is tedious for the rest of us, too. In the end, I must concur with one of Updike's (few) female characters, in the story Killing: " her awareness of Martin's wishing to make love -- of male energy alive in the world and sustaining it -- put her to sleep."

Yes, exactly.

Copyright © 1994 Martha Conway
Enterzone Copyright © 1995
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