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Gerald Di Pego

Gerald Di Pego
London 1996

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The author of this novel is best known as a Hollywood screenwriter, his claims to fame including the latest movie in the John Travolta revival campaign, Phenomenon. In Cheevey, he continues true to form, producing a novel that is tailor made for a silver screen adaptation. Ideal, in fact, for the currently prevailing genre in American film of ‘poignant tales of family life’ and the oft exploited fascination for the turmoil that lies beneath the veneer of respectable surburban existence. Cheevey is the first person narrative of an American teenager, on the brink of his twentieth birthday, and of adulthood. Its eponymous hero provides the only channel of communication within his highly-strung and disfunctional family. His sister Mari describes the various members of the Cheever family as ‘five fingers without a hand’. It is Cheevey’s self-assigned role to become that hand, to provide that vital connection between the various constituents of a collapsing unit. And whilst dealing with his reticent, violent brother, his sister’s neurotic alcoholism and the destructive silence of his parents’ marital breakdown, Claude Cheever must cope with his own young adulthood and his own vulnerability.

Di Pego takes us through Cheevey’s relationships with his family and with the women towards whom he directs his adolescent lust. And of course with his best buddy, at which points in the novel the dialogue degenerates into the moronic post-modern discourse of Bill and Ted or Beavis and Butthead. The various conversational relationships in the novel are emphasised as a central theme. Cheevey’s parents are uncomfortably silent, his brother limited to violent expletives and his sister, a failed academic cannot stop talking. When Cheevey falls in love, it is with the easy, affectionate and fluid utterances of an ‘older woman’. His yearnings fluctuate between wanting to be her lover and needing to be her surrogate son and in this Di Pego captures the archtypal instability and confusion of adolescence. Cheevey fails, however, in that its narrator does not progress far beyond the archetype. Some of its minor characters are much more fully realised. Mari’s struggle between her role as a mother, the demands of her husband and her own intellectual ambitions is complex and engaging. The quiet and hypochondriac Mrs Cheever is possessed an unexplained Francophilia and the picture of a lonely middle-aged woman living only for her dreams of France is one of the novel’s most enduring images. Di Pego has peopled his novel with an imaginatively constructed and sympathetically drawn cast, but one cannot help but feel that each of them is left somewhat incomplete.

The publicity notes adorning the gaudy sunset of the novel’s cover proclaim Di Pego’s work to be comparable to Catcher in the Rye. Such attempts to confer immediate canonical status on a new novel should always be treated with suspicion, and this proves to be no exception. There are obvious thematic similarities between the two texts but Di Pego’s attempts to create a Holden Caulfield for the Nineties seems somewhat forced. Whilst Cheevey is by no means a two-dimensional character, he fails to live up to his prototype, for Di Pego’s prose lacks Salinger’s fluent and artless poignancy. Cheevey’s story is undoubtedly compelling and the tragedy that is the novel’s climax is both moving and explosive. But herein lacks the essential difference between Di Pego’s novel and Salinger’s masterpiece. Cheevey is an ‘action’ novel, swiftly paced and packed with ‘events’. Its hero is pawn-like, manipulated and pressurised from all sides, but good and essentially stable. Holden Caulfield’s tragedy is internalised – things do not so much happen to him as happen within him, and it is for this reason that his lonely wanderings in New York do much more than make an immediate grab for the reader’s emotions. Once read, they stay with us and have an effect, no matter how subtle, on the way we view the world. Cheevey is a novel to be enjoyed and then forgotten and it has this in common with most contemporary American cinema. Gerald Di Pego could never write a novel like Catcher in the Rye because he could never make a Hollywood blockbuster from it. But read Cheevey if you fancy a couple of hours of undemanding weepy prose. Then sit back and wait for the movie.

Reviewed by Polly Rance


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