Like most people, prior to picking up this at-times masterful, at-times leaden collection, I had read perhaps two short stories written by John Cheever. “The Enormous Radio,” one of Cheever’s earliest, remains a popularly anthologized slice of horror dished up to high schoolers, while “The Swimmer,” one of his latest, retains its popularity in part due to the 1968 Burt Lancaster film adaptation. In this latter piece, a man notices that every back yard in his town has a swimming pool. He concocts a plan to “swim home,” and each new dip is a microcosm of his relations and his life.
My opinions of Cheever have, over the years, largely been influenced by these two stories, which are decent enough in their way, but something that youth can appreciate only slightly due to their peculiar subject matter. I may even have read The Wapshot Chronicle in college at some point, though if I have all memory of it has disappeared. Cheever is, and I write this as a specific kind of compliment, a writer for adults.
One may easily think that many authors write for adults. It’s quite likely even part of their conscious decision-making, but what I mean is something different. There is something in the viewpoint, in the aesthetic of Cheever’s writing that only profoundly begins to make sense once you yourself have obtained adulthood. This is not to say that his stories are merely stale accounts of mortgages and careers that slowly stifle your passions, but there is something of Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation” to be found throughout. Perhaps to fully get their flavor you have to reach that point in your life where you make terms with the conflicting reality of your potential and the promise of your dreams.
In any case, the collection is astoundingly first-rate. I’ve been unable to determine if this is definitive, if there exists a sizable body of Cheever stories that didn’t make the cut. It’s one of the things I’d like to see publishing houses develop consistent standards on. One may buy The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway or The Complete Stories of Ernest Hemingway and not realize that these are not the same volumes. There is a slender edition of more political stories Cheever wrote for leftist magazines in the thirties, though none of these appear in this particular trove.
As I began to read, Cheever’s world needed some getting used to. It is hard to remember that once upon a time such was our economy and our outlook that month long summer vacations to seaside cottages were not solely the province of the upper classes, but that middle class families did so as well. Dad often took the train back to the city for a few days out of that month to check in and so forth, but for the most part leisure was part of the equation. It is hard to credit a world in which husbands and wives regularly quaff martinis and go to parties and “get tight” with three dimensional reality when for so many of us this world exists primarily as a black and white era film.
Cheever’s stories, however, are anything but that kind of celluloid thinness. In his way, Cheever mined a rich vein of existential angst felt by characters at times too numb to the world around them to recognize their own despair. As in the aforementioned “The Enormous Radio,” our protagonist, Irene Westcott is so delighted at first in eavesdropping on her neighbors that she doesn’t realize that her very action makes her even more despicable and loathsome than they are with their petty thievery and their affairs. It is the brutal gift of the radio that allows her to be stripped of her pleasant “good people” veneer, and by the closing paragraphs she and her husband are revealed to be no better than anyone around them. This laying bare is done unsparingly, unsentimentally, and with delightfully wicked wit.
That’s part of the secret of Cheever’s literary charm. Put quite bluntly, his stories are often about characters coming to the realization that their shit does in fact stink. The opening story “Goodbye, My Brother” introduces us to the Pommeroy family, and at first our sympathies lie with the narrator against his brother, the prig Lawrence. As the tale unfolds, though, Cheever manages the neat trick of exposing the narrator for what he is – a judgmental, sanctimonious prick in his own right – but the author entirely withholds that self-revelation from his character. It’s wonderfully done, almost a kind of literary photo-realism.
The term “painterly” is often applied to Cheever’s style due to the diligence he applies to the detailed creation of his characters and their worlds. It’s not inapt, but it is suggestive of a kind of transparent effect, an obvious trick to what he’s doing that becomes readily apparent once you’ve gotten close enough to the canvas. At times, yes, Cheever’s prose can be shudder-inducingly dated in its stylistic mannerisms, let alone its subject matter. While these are the kinds of stories in which husbandly affairs in the city are glossed over matter-of-factly, wives who get hysterical are psychologically cured with a little backhand, and the darkest shade of melanin runs to minor Italian characters, those are merely artifacts of the time.
To our jaded, post-modern sensibilities, there is at times something a little maudlin in Cheever’s straight-up New Criticism stylings. “O Youth and Beauty!” is a perfect example of a story that fits this bill to a T, even its O. Henry conclusion being a perfect set piece of its times. The decline into disrepute of a once handsome popular man and the failure of his usual party trick is a thumbnail sketch of agonized personal tragedy that like much of our own melodramatic feelings is completely alien and unrecognizable to others. Similarly, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” is a wonderful examination of another buttoned-down crack up. Stripped of his usual morals and ethics by desperation and shame, a man finds himself becoming almost addicted to robbing his neighbors.
“Just Tell Me Who It Was” bristles with a prickly private agony as well, as in the best of Cheever’s tales. In this, an older man worries about his being cuckolded by his younger wife, though evidence in any direction remains tantalizingly elusive. If you’ve ever been bitten particularly hard by the twin fangs of deep love and deep jealousy, you’re sure to recognize Will Pym’s high velocity see-saw of emotions.
One of the strongest, weirdest stories of the lot, and for many reasons my favorite in the collection is “The Five-Forty-Eight.” Blake, one of Cheever’s countless husbands who work in the city, decides to go home with an obviously unbalanced new secretary at his firm, Miss Denton. “Most of the many women he had known had been picked for their lack of self esteem,” we are told. After he satisfies himself with her, he has the personnel department fire the woman. Her confrontation with him that makes up the bulk of the plot is one of the most unforgettably tense and poetic pieces of Cheever’s writing. The tautness is there from the very first line of the story and it only gets worse as Miss Denton follows Blake to the train station and sits down next to him with a gun. Her revenge is perfectly written, a shaming so profound that even Cheever’s typical male will be sure to get it.
The collection remains a 700-page treasure of riches, most of them small, and in our era of oversized reading tastes, when only the most grandiose experimentation will cut literary ice and only the most tawdry and vicious serial murderers will garner much in the way of sales, these small pleasures have become something of a refinement. The world has traveled much and changed even more since John Cheever was a household name. Most have likely never heard of him, or heard of him in passing only, a glancing memory of “that story we read in high school about the radio.”
It is impossible to crack the spine on this collection and not be swept back in time, not feel the confines of an era that was paradoxically smaller and yet still bigger. As our external horizons seem to have regressed to a point approaching infinity, it seems our internal horizons have diminished to a point closing in on nil. Cheever has a bracing tonic effect on both tendencies, giving us slices of life from an age when even Boston felt like a small town, served right alongside the grand pageant of an inner monologue whose richness and variety might strike a twenty-something of today as bizarrely complex. The term “escapism” is often used to denigrate certain kinds of genre fiction. I can bestow no higher compliment on Cheever’s work than to proclaim it escapism of a very, very satisfying kind.