Review Of The
Stories Of John Cheever
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/28/05
Of all the archetypal New Yorker short story writers of the Twentieth Century- John O’Hara, John Updike, Alice Adams, J.D. Salinger- perhaps the best of them was John Cheever- and he was certainly the best of the three big Johns. That said, I do not particularly like John Cheever’s stories. Of the over sixty tales in this collection a good thee quarters involved characters that do not personally interest me- mid-Twentieth Century upper crust whites, martini-totaling who seem as stranded on the island of Manhattan, or his fictive suburb of Shady Hill, physically as their views of the world are intellectually. In his world even middle class people have maids. But, almost all of the tales are tight and well-wrought, and that’s an important distinction to note when reviewing, for few critics are able to separate themselves from their biases and inclinations. That said, while the tales are good, and at their best, very good, excellent, and even near-great, there isn’t a one that really leapt out as being inarguably great, mostly because they are tales that work on only one or two levels, even when ricjly layered. This is because they follow a formula, the New Yorker formula, and follow it well, but Cheever never achieves an expansion of his character’s worlds the way he tinkers incessantly with the interior narrative structures. To use a metaphor, his stories are solidly and well built, but the interior decorating can be atrocious.
His tales almost always start off with a good and/or arresting start, and his ends are also usually quite deft. The middle sometimes sag, in even the best tales, not because of length, but because the tales are so dependent upon their extreme supports. An example of this can be seen in the book’s first tale, and one of its most famous, Goodbye, My Brother, which starts out as an extraordinarily keen portrait of an upper class WASP family gathered for a reunion at their beach house, then one brother viciously attacks and beats another brother, and all sense of realism is gone, as the tale becomes just a well-wrought melodrama, rather than the realistic character study it could have and- dammit- should have been. Anyone who has known these sorts of folks will recognize the precise realism of the tale’s early details and moods. This only makes the melodrama all the more disappointing, for that action, in the real world, so close to what Cheever sketches early in the tale, is merely every impotent middle-aged WASP failure’s Cain fantasy: forced violence of the sort that only restrained WASPs can feel, because they’re emotionally effete and intellectually ‘above’ its real causes, and so their laureates pour it out into fiction that clunks with insincerity, like that very moment in a potentially great tale. The ending sinks even lower, as pure melodrama, trite, with poor poetry:
Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you
dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm
hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race,
the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the
obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning
was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming- Diana and Helen-
and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them
come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace,
and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.
Fortunately, the first ending in the book is also possibly the worst.
Another famed, but poorly wrought tale is The Five-Forty-Eight, which is
another fantasy excursion into violence, albeit it emotional, with the physical
merely threatened, as a woman who had an affair with her boss gets revenge in a
way that would now be called stalking. These two tales are part of the worst
aspects of mid-Twentieth Century literature that almost smothered the short
story form, and certainly propelled it to ignominy for several decades. O
City Of Broken Dreams is not in that vein, but a tad too long, although a
terrific evocation of the American Dream just at the beginning of modern Madison
Avenue, as a would-be playwright and his family seem to grab the brass ring,
only to have threatened legalities set in, and them decamp back to the Midwest.
Forget the differing tales they’re from and just look at the mythography and
less forced nature, of the ‘realer’ poetry that ends this tale vis-à-vis Goodbye,
The Malloys may have left the train in Chicago and gone back to
Wentworth. It is not hard to imagine their homecoming, for they would be
welcomed by their friends and relations, although their stories might not be
believed. Or they may have changed, at Chicago, for a train to the West, and
this, to tell the truth, is easier to imagine. One can see them playing hearts
in the lounge car and eating cheese sandwiches in the railroad stations as they
traveled through Kansas and Nebraska- over the mountains and on to the Coast.
This is an example of flat-out great writing, for even in that little bit there is the sense of something larger than the characters and their story hovering about. At his best, though, Cheever takes on the lower classes, and succeeds. What amazes me is that he seemed to be far better at home when dealing with the emotional rawness of such characters and situations, vis-à-vis the social machinations of elitists. In Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor a self-pitying elevator operator scams his rich tenants into pitying him with food and gifts until he gets giddy, reckless, and gets fired, and his epiphany, at tale’s end, takes seed in others. Another excellent tale in the same vein is The Superintendent, which follows a day in the life of the title character. The reactions of the man, and his dilemmas, are perfectly captured, and even decades later, save for a few differences in technology, the same tsoris is inflicted upon people like him still. The ending is one of the best in the book.
Technically, Cheever also pulls off marvelous turns of narrative direction that can leave one with a wholly unexpected ending, as judged by a tale’s start, but wholly realistic if reading the tale. There is also a dealing with the same themes and life events that occurs in many of the tales. In Just Tell Me Who It Was a rich, successful older man finds out his younger wife has cuckolded him, and attacks the man he suspects did it, in public, but unlike the scene in Goodbye, My Brother, the violence flows naturally from the story elements that lead up to it. Another element from Goodbye, My Brother that is reworked more successfully in another tale occurs in The Seaside Houses, in which the end of a marriage and the passage of time are all summed up in a fleeting instant by the narrator. It is a tale void of the melodrama of the lesser tale that shares its themes. That the two better tales were published in the New Yorker in 1978 and the lesser one in 1951 should not surprise. The depth and richness of the later tales is evident. Yet, a brief tale like Reunion, in which a father and son briefly reunite, never to see each other again, is also terrifically wrought and almost lyrical.
Yet, as good as he can be, his tales should be read sparingly, because too many in a row tends to manifest the New Yorkerish weaknesses in his short story corpus: suburbia, adultery, middle class purgatory, fedoras, regretful housewives, and cocktail parties that all become fairy taleish, and are topped off with a climactic three or four sentence epiphany. John O’Hara may have invented that genre, but Cheever brought it to its apex, and- as shown- the epiphanies can be marvelous. In a sense, one might argue he personified the post-World War Two generation in fiction the way F. Scott Fitzgerald did the Jazz Age. Fortunately, though, Cheever is the far superior short story stylist because his tales are not as hermetically walled off to the contemporary reader as those of Fitzgerald, and therefore more emotionally more accessible, especially when limning schlubs. Yet, many of Cheever’s tales, as formulaic as they could be, also broke the fourth wall, or commented slyly on themselves, pointing up the lie that Postmodernism was anything new or revolutionary. And, in Cheever’s story, the devices actually enhance or serve the tales, and are not mere accoutrements to blow the writer’s own horn, and solipsistically preen on their coolness. The art comes first in Cheever’s tales. Look at how he describes a simple act in The Enormous Radio, a tale about an old woman who loses herself in another world:
….The radio was delivered at the kitchen door the following afternoon, and with the assistance of her maid and the handyman Irene uncrated it and brought it into the living room. She was struck at once with the physical ugliness of the large gumwood cabinet. Irene was proud of her living room, she had chosen its furnishings and colors as carefully as she chose her clothes, and now it seemed to her that the new radio stood among her intimate possessions like an aggressive intruder. She was confounded by the number of dials and switches on the instrument panel, and she studied them thoroughly before she put the plug into a wall socket and turned the radio on. The dials flooded with a malevolent green light, and in the distance she heard the music of a piano quintet. The quintet was in the distance for only an instant; it bore down upon her with a speed greater than light and filled the apartment with the noise of music amplified so mightily that it knocked a china ornament from a table to the floor. She rushed to the instrument and reduced the volume. The violent forces that were snared in the ugly gumwood cabinet made her uneasy. Her children came home from school then, and she took them to the Park. It was not until later in the afternoon that she was able to return to the radio.
The Stories Of John Cheever may not be the best Twentieth Century American fiction had to offer, but it’s emblemic. To not read or not understand these tales is to be as void of the American character as ignoring Dickens is to the English character or Chekhov is to the Russian character of the prior century. Read the book, learn from it, and seek out those who will do even more for this century.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 9/05 Hackwriters website.]
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