Last weekend I was reading a few of John Cheever's priceless short stories, which immortalize a lost world of men in hats, riding trains back and forth from homes in suburbs to jobs in the city, when I came across a timely piece of social criticism rare in Cheever. In the story, "The Golden Age," published in The New Yorker in 1959, an American named Seton has come to a small coastal town north of Rome for a break with his wife and two young sons. The Italian villagers think he's a poet, but he's trying to conceal the fact that he is a television writer, author of a situation comedy called "The Best Family."
Seton takes his family down to the beach, where he becomes troubled by his secret:
"He is a television writer. Lying on the sand of the cove, below the castle, is the form of a television writer. His crime is that he is the author of an odious situation comedy called 'The Best Family.' When it was revealed to him that in dealing with mediocrity he was dealing not with flesh and blood but with whole principalities and kingdoms of wrong doing, he threw up his job and fled to Italy. But now 'The Best Family' has been leased by Italian television - it is called 'La Famiglia Tosta' over here - and the asininities he has written will ascend to the towers of Siena, will be heard in the ancient streets of Florence, and will drift out of the lobby of the Gritti Palace onto the Grand Canal. This Sunday is his début, and his sons, who are proud of him, have spread the word in the village. Poeta!"
His two sons bring along the toy machine guns that their grandmother mailed them:
"His sons have begun to skirmish with their machine guns. It is a harrowing reminder of his past. The taint of television is on their innocent shoulders. While the children of the village sing, dance, and gather wild flowers, his own sons advance from rock to rock, pretending to kill. It is a mistake, and a trivial one, but it flusters him, although he cannot bring himself to call them to him and try to explain that their adroitness at imitating the cries and the postures of the dying may deepen an international misunderstanding. They are misunderstood, and he can see the women wagging their heads at the thought of a country so barbarous that even little children are given guns as playthings. Mamma mia! One has seen it all in the movies. One would not dare walk on the streets of New York because of the gang warfare, and once you step out of New York you are in a wilderness, full of naked savages."
Cheever wrote this story more than fifty years ago. The stereotypical image of life in America that Italians, and people all over the world, have developed has changed, thanks to our ever more violent movies and computer games, only in the degree of its savagery. And Americans who travel are confronted with foreigners who curiously ask them "why?".
The blunders of our government, as reported in up-to-the-minute detail by an evidently underworked media, leave foreigners perplexed. How can the lawmakers of the world's largest economy act so stupidly? China has even suggested that the world economy be "de-Americanized" - that the dollar be replaced as the world's currency.
American tourists aren't as easily lampooned as they were when E.M. Forster wrote A Room With a View. In the novel, Mr. Eager brutally sums up the experience of American tourists. A little American girl asks: "Hey, Poppa! What did we see in Rome?" "In Rome?" the father replies. "In Rome, we saw a yellow dog!" Since then, Italians have seen enough of British and Japanese and Chinese tourists to realize that Americans haven't monopolized vulgarity.
Having to answer for the "asininities" (as Cheever called them) of fellow Americans has become an unfortunate pastime for Americans abroad. Today, whenever the United States makes it into the news in foreign countries, it is usually because of some political crisis or a mass shooting. I remember standing inside a fast food joint in Okinawa when gangs of American sailors fought outside. A squealing girl came in pleading for towels from the Japanese proprietor to stop her boyfriend's bleeding. I stupidly felt the need to say to the man, "I'm sorry." (gomen nasai). "Stupidly," because I no longer feel responsible for the ridiculous behavior of my countrymen. Not even for the people in Congress who nearly took the country's economy over a cliff.
Incidentally, Cheever's story ends with an unexpected triumph. After the premiere of "La Famiglia Tosta" Seton is greeted with cheers from the villagers. He wanted to disown his television writing, but they were entranced by its "asininities." A little girl gives him flowers and the Mayor embraces him, saying "Oh, we thought, signore, that you were merely a poet."