KR Reviews

On Cape May by Chip Cheek

New York, NY: Celadon Books, 2019. 256 pages. $26.99.

Given how integral it is to the publishing industry’s bottomline, the Beach Read assumes a precise blueprint to minimize risk and maximize profit. Pick any sandy-covered 300-pager off your local bookseller’s seasonal shelf and chances are you’ll find an alluring if unalarming tale of White People Behaving Badly, gin-suffused days on a rustic I-95-adjacent shoreline, sumptuous adultery neatly playing itself out between Memorial and Labor Days. The challenge, for the rare novelist who seeks it, becomes making a statement within such established framework. How to summon art from books meant to relax rather than provoke, ones meant to share canvas totes with grainy towels and greasy sunscreen bottles?

With his debut Cape May, Chip Cheek relies on the setting (coastal southern New Jersey) and year (1957, or exactly equidistant between WWII and Vietnam, for anyone counting) to take care of the “rustic” part. Newlyweds Henry and Effie, devout Christians from rural Georgia, might have planned their honeymoon a bit more strategically: arriving in early autumn to find a summer town nearly deserted. But the skimpy preparation they made for their honeymoon dwarfs whatever was applied to their impending marriage. Just out of high school, their union is predicated upon small-town convention and pragmatic if not-so-deeply felt passion. Tellingly, they’re both virgins when they step off the train at Cape May Terminal.

Cheek’s scenery is luxuriant, and his cast chews it adeptly. After almost cutting their trip short—the couple grows weary of the town and, ominously, each other—they stumble into another young couple staying down the block and are quickly enveloped by their jet-set lifestyle. Max and Clara are hard-partying Manhattan swingers capable of setting the sleepy town ablaze. Accompanied by Max’s enigmatic half-sister Alma, the quintet embarks upon a marathon of open-sea sailing, open-air dining, late night dancing, debilitating hangovers and magical mornings after. There are terraces with drooping vines, suggestive glances enough to rival an arthouse film, and flattering candlelight galore.

The troupe’s before-the-fall glory works in service of a seeping expositional intrigue—but aren’t these waning, languorous days of summer, dear reader, exactly what you came for? The Victorians are well-furnished, the dialogue well-paced, and we’re absolutely privileged with the company of our dazzling visitors. Clara’s extended entourage, friends from Princeton and the Village and God knows where, is rich in manner yet progressive in habit and politics. The young worldbeaters seize Cape May like children in Disneyland, reveling in the town and in each other. It is a week of discovery, of sexual awakenings and sloshed erudition, of jazz and parlor games and teeming biology

Cheek lends a keen eye and deft touch to ensemble scenes. Players make graceful introductions and veer from suspects to confederates over the course of succinct conversations. In this cosmopolitan foreground, every lush and lover is a potential foil for Henry and Effie—who, it bears emphasizing, are still getting to know themselves and each other. During raucous parties at Clara’s and a charming dance on the boardwalk, they’re transformed from reserved southerners into charismatic country clubbers. If their newfound self-assurance among such rarefied company is itself an act, the implicit question is whether, as a couple, Henry and Effie are becoming more or less themselves.

Fitzgerald looms as a hazy reference point above books like this, and Cheek performs faithful homage without stooping to insipid karaoke. Each of Cape May’s vividly sketched beau monde carries uncertain baggage, and as it’s a novel rather than a still life, its all-too-brief golden age is upended by The Affair between Henry and Alma. Cheek doesn’t contort himself in exhibitions of hypermasculine poetry or heady philosophy, but flexes a whole battery of narrative stops. For all their smartly evoked mid-century refinery, the characters’ animal impulses are wholly unvarnished. In a subtle, even Fitzgeraldian tragic turn, Henry becomes a victim of his own ruin.

Cheek executes considerable characterization in passing. Cape May’s characters do not have interior lives; it’s summer, go play outside. The narration, a third-person limited loosely if noncommittally restricted to Henry’s perspective, stumbles in spots but proves strategic as his affair unfolds. He and Effie are an earnest if not entirely naive couple, their marriage a product of cultural and regional expectations. Via Cheek’s breezy descriptors they are rendered raw, likeable, and frustratingly human.

As characters Clara and Max leave the most to be desired—if only because they’re built so compellingly—one wishes to spend more time with them and slightly less with Henry and Effie. Clara in particular is a larger-than-life libertine with her own witchy devices. “I’m a sorceress,” she tells Henry as he surveys his trail of infidelities and ostensibly ruined marriage. But if her late summer’s retinue is indeed under her spell, it’s only hinted at in the course of narration; she’s ultimately more style than substance.

Cape May’s final treat is an epilogue which concisely surveys Henry and Effie’s life after their honeymoon. Effie, once so brilliant and promising, becomes a fat drunk; Henry enjoys the diminishing fruits of twentieth century patriarchy. The prospect of their shared adulthood conveyed in a mere eight pages is garish, implying a clear series of cause and effect which confirms the misgivings of their Cape May vacation. But it’s also a nuanced commentary on marriage as an institution. While mostly miserable, Henry and Effie are considered “a good team” by their neighbors in Georgia. In the twilight of his life, Henry looks back upon that fateful summer: “He understands now the way desire spreads, like heat—how, when he and Effie discovered it in each other, they awoke to the swollen desirability all around him. He hadn’t been able to resist it.” Unfortunately for them both, by that point he was already saddled with a wife.

Cape May is a fine novel of leisure which relies on touchstones for its resonance but invention for its luster, a sure-handed debut which doesn’t mire itself in asides or neuroses. Henry and Effie are beautiful and pure in the manner of all young lovers; in them Cheek captures a zeal for life and wariness of overindulgence. In youth’s cocktail hour gloaming, even betrayal is glamorous.

Pete Tosiello
Pete Tosiello’s arts writing and culture criticism has appeared in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Outline, Village Voice, and SPIN among many other publications. He lives in New York City.