As any avid reader knows there is a plethora of books on the subject of growing up and becoming an adult. So what makes The Wapshot Chronicle a singular work, one worthy of the National Book Award it won in 1958? The short answer is its author, John Cheever. But ultimately every book's achievements and shortcomings are the author’s fault. In the case of The Wapshot Chronicle, the strengths and beauty of the book come directly from the author, as opposed to coming via the characters, the dialogue, or the characters’ actions.
The Wapshot Chronicle follows the tortuous circuit two brothers, Moses Wapshot and his younger brother Coverely, take in maturing from boys to young adults and eventually men. The stage upon which their transformation takes place originates in the Atlantic Northeast, then stretching from New York to Hawaii, from a remote fishing pond in the mountains to an Army base in a nondescript suburb. The Wapshot brothers spend their childhood side by side like teammates but soon find the responsibilities of life calling. The brothers, and the story, bifurcate as Moses and Coverly find their own ways and final destinations.
Moses and Coverely’s immediate family is absently watched over by their father, who tries to instill in his boys a sense of manhood, responsibility and character by subjecting the two to timeless yet somewhat mundane rituals like fishing. Unfortunately for the kids, Leander is as competent at steering his kids as he is piloting his boat (which he crashes into a river bank). Luckily Mrs. Honora Wapshot and a cadre of eccentric supporting characters help the boys journey into adulthood.
The old cliche advises to never judge a book by its cover. In the case of The Wapshot Chronicle, one should not judge a book by its cover or by the first sixty pages. Dialogue and minor characters dominate this section, but that is atypical of the book. By the time the story settles down both are to a noticeable extent purged. The story stumbles somewhat over the introduction of the many characters who for the most part establish tone, setting and mood, of the story, then are conveniently discharged. Once all of this has been accomplished, Cheever dives into what he wrote the book for: to tell his story through his unique and powerful narrative.
John Cheever is best known (and most accomplished) as a short-story writer. He enjoyed a long working relationship with the New Yorker and received a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. His strong proclivity towards short works is evident in The Wapshot Chronicle. The book reads more like a series of short stories than one continuous book. Though the book suffers a little from this choppy rhythm, it provides Cheever an opportunity to showcase his considerable talents and, in the process, establish for himself a place in the upper echelon of American fiction writers.
The Wapshot Chronicle's exploration of two boys’ journey into adulthood is more than a well-narrated coming-of-age story. Throughout the book, Cheever demonstrates his firm grasp on all things Northeastern. He knows the people and their habits and hangups and their somewhat peculiar hobbies, and he understands the struggle of family, love, and friends. His style leaves room for the reader to add his or her own input. Moods, intentions, messages -- many things are tacitly told, allowing the reader to put in his or her own spin on the book. Though The Wapshot Chronicle received the National Book Award, it seems to lack the big, life-changing events and trials which one usually experiences during the maturation process. But John Cheever’s foray into novel writing results in an excellently written book unique in a genre that already occupies lots of room in bookstores and bookshelves everywhere.