Two cheers for the suburbs

If there is ever a time of year when a dweller in the city or the suburb feels tempted to become a country dweller, it is now. In the woods and on the hillsides of New Hampshire the last snows linger as a picturesque remnant. Oaks and maples may still have a certain starkness, but the sun is warm enough to help the imagination frame them in prophetic green.

Your friend lives down a dirt -- make that mud -- road, sufficiently remote to keep all but friends out. The smoke from his wood furnace curls into a flawless sky. He shows you a map of what he is going to plant, and where. The common words -- tomatoes, peas, squash, beans -- make the mouth water. In a small barn his sheep are getting ready to lamb. A mongrel galumphs in great circles -- out to the world, back to the people, out to the world again.

There is space everywhere you look. There is privacy.

A day with your friend in the country can make a city apartment seem like house arrest. Until, that is, you visit our city friend, who lives a walking distance from three museums, with his cat on a windowsill and a dazzling night view of New York City's lights. ''All great civilizations come from a metropolis ,'' your city friend pontificates. In the spring you can practically hear the dynamo hum.

This leaves the suburbs. Who would really want to live in the suburbs? Ed Koch asked the question not so rhetorically before New York City's mayor decided he might want to be New York State's governor and had to take a few remarks back.

Nobody has ever had too much good to say for the suburbs. Neither country or city, the suburb has been despised by at least three generations of novelists and sociologists, and often by suburban dwellers themselves. John Cheever allowed a voice in one of his suburban novels, ''Bullet Park,'' to recite the litany of grievances, cursing the suburbs for the ''bright lights by which no one reads,'' the ''grand pianos that no one can play,'' the ''white houses mortgaged up to their rain gutters.'' Then the Cheever critic proceeded to turn moralistic and thunder against the suburbs like an Old Testament prophet for their ''cant,'' their ''hypocrisy,'' and their ''credit cards'' -- for having enshrined ''immaculateness'' and ''leached from life that strength, malodorousness, color and zeal that give it meaning.''

There can be few dwellers in the suburbs who fail to recognize a partial justice to the charges -- who have not, at one time or another, made the charges themselves, less eloquently.

The suburb is a compromise that has been caught in the act of compromise. But every living accommodation -- back to the cave and the lake village -- must have started as a compromise everybody's now forgotten. After a while compromises become something different -- weathering, gaining a patina. There are homes in the suburbs now older than farmhouses in the country or brownstones in the city.

Cheever decided his critic of the suburbs was ''mistaken'' -- not because he was too harsh but because he was too simplistic. A loving ironist of the cut flowers on the lemon-oiled table, Cheever has always understood that the suburb is more variegated and eccentric than both its friends and its enemies tend to believe.

Indeed a city condo dweller or a nouveau countryman may be more typecast than a 1982 dweller in the suburbs.

A traveler returning home from either the country or the city in the spring sees the suburb with fresh eyes, rather than as a thesis. If the suburb is not life on the scale of the country, or civilization on the scale of the city, there is life here -- birds in the trees, squirrels in the bird-feeders, tricycles in the driveways. And there is civilization of a sort -- three books, one suddenly recalls, are due at the branch library.

Seen without preconceptions, the suburb does not lack in comic charm. It is to the history of habitats what light verse is to poetry. But at the end of a day, as the sun sets behind the forsythia, it can certainly look like home.

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