Author: John Cheever
First published: 1964
Locale: St. Botolphs, Massachusetts; Proxmire Manor, a Westchester suburb; and Talifer, site of a missile research base
Plot: Social satire
Time: Early 1960's
Coverly Wapshot, who is younger and seemingly less agreeable and promising than his brother Moses. He is also “a model of provincial virtues” and as such seems both naïve and strangely noble. He is twenty-eight years old and lives in Talifer with his wife and son. Although trained as a computer taper, he has been assigned to the public relations department at the Talifer missile site and research center. When his marriage begins to sour, he develops the habit of “talking like a Chinese fortune cookie” and pretending that nothing unpleasant has happened. Wanting to be useful as a husband, father, and worker, he is repeatedly made to feel helpless and inconsequential. Despite the blows to his fragile sense of self-esteem, he remains both hopeful and dutiful to the end.
Betsey Wapshot, Coverly's wife, who holds in her hands the raw material of his dreams. In unfriendly Talifer, the dark side of her personality emerges. As marriage to this “moon goddess” with her irreconcilable faces turns into a battleground, Coverly adopts the posture of a losing sexual combatant and Betsey seizes on every crumb of self-esteem that he drops.
Moses Wapshot, Coverly's older brother. Now in his early thirties, he works for a shady brokerage house and lives in affluent Proxmire Manor. When his aunt Honora's monthly stipend stops, Moses, deeply in debt, departs on a frantic and unsuccessful effort to raise cash. His absence is the proximate cause of his wife's adultery, which is in turn the proximate cause of his subsequent drinking and pessimism.
Melissa Wapshot, Moses' bored and lonely wife. A mysterious illness makes her fearful of death and greedy for pleasure. She takes nineteen-year-old Emile Cranmer as her lover, but instead of being reinvigorated, she comes to feel old and “morally shabby.” Separated from her husband, she ends up in Rome, where she buys Emile in a beauty pageant/sex-slave auction. She lives with him unhappily ever after.
Emile Cranmer, a nineteen-year-old grocery clerk who lives with his widowed mother in straitened circumstances. Although Melissa thinks him “divine,” the narrator judges him “pitiful, vain, and fair, a common young man trying to find some pleasure and adventure in life.” Always hungry but never greedy, he takes what Melissa offers but remains unsatisfied and disappointed.
Gertrude Lockhart, a happily married mother of three. She suffers a series of domestic setbacks—frozen plumbing, an exploding furnace, an overflowing washing machine, and blown fuses—that take her from tears to promiscuity and drink, then to being ostracized and finally to suicide. Her comic predicament, minus her tragic end, anticipates Melissa's downfall.
Lemuel Cameron, the imperious director of the Talifer missile site and research center. He has distanced himself from his Italian heritage and retarded son. Ending his affair with his greedy Roman mistress, he is rewarded with the discovery “that there was some blessedness in the nature of things.” Soon after, in a twist of irony, a congressional committee strips him of his security clearance.
Honora Wapshot, Coverly's aunt, the matriarch of the Wapshot family. When her eccentricity eventually gets her in trouble with the government, for failure to pay income tax, she flees to Rome, where she feels the full weight of homesickness. Returning to St. Botolphs, she promptly drinks and starves herself to death.
The narrator, who enters the story at several points. Near the beginning, he recalls the pleasant times he spent with the Wapshots at their home as well as their power to make him feel alone and to make it painfully clear that he was an outsider. At the end, he bids farewell to St. Botolphs, a town he loves but to which he says he will never return.