The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever. Highly recommended.
John Cheever has long had a reputation as the quintessential American writer of the 20th century, and this collection, which he edited, is illustration of why he is a favourite of the American literati.
Cheever’s stories are populated by mostly mundane people in mundane settings — the corporate executive and rising stars who go home every night to an affluent suburb like Shady Hill, with its unforgettable recurring cast of characters (the Beardens, the Farquarson, the Parminters) who live on such unforgettable streets as Alewives Lane; the New York City elevator operator whose life consists of going up and down all day and whose mind and imagination never leave their comfortable paths; other apartment building workers, half of whose lives are spent on the fringe of luxury and the other half in grimy poverty; the thoughtless affluent who cannot conceive of any other life; the downwardly mobile who have no choice but to lower their level of existence closer to that of their former servants and who cannot seem to grasp that things will never be what they once were; the social outcasts, like Mrs. Hewing, who is “kind of immoral”; the former duchesses and other members of the old European elite who wear their rags with grace while their estate homes crumble around them; the expatriates who fit in neither where they come from nor where they live; and the travelers who find tragedy awaits at the end of the trip with the death of their child — or even the beginning of the journey of their doomed marriage.
What sets the stories and the characters — and Cheever — apart is the surreal nature of so much of what happens in the course of these vignettes. Instead of addressing an addiction like alcoholism directly, Cheever tells of an ordinary woman who cannot stop listening to her neighbours as their lives, their arguments, their loves, and their passions are voiced over a new radio her husband has bought for her in “The Enormous Radio.” The birth and course of the affliction are seamlessly revealed through Irene Westcott’s inability to withdraw from vicariously living through her neighbours’ conversations. “The Five-Forty-Eight” reveals how an ordinary event — sexual relations between executive and assistant — can lead to the humiliation of a confident, secure man, who finds himself falling into the filth, while the disturbed and wronged ex-assistant is finally free of the demons he helped to feed while ignorant of their existence. In “The Swimmer,” which takes place on a Sunday where the recurring refrain is, “I drank too much” can be heard at every home, Neddy Merrill decides to go home from a party by swimming across the county through all the pools in between his host’s home and his own — a novel idea taken to its surreal level as the weather and the trees change, and Neddy finds himself lost in a world where he knows what has become of himself but not how or why.
The world of John Cheever is primarily male; the vast majority of the stories are told by a man in the first person. The women whom they encounter range from their tired wives to their enigmatic lovers — and, in the case of the third of “Three Stories,” an enigmatic wife. Sex is central to many of the tales; the happily and the miserably married are in many cases equally open to sexual adventure and excitement if occasionally afraid of the consequences. It is the rare protagonist who would voice the thoughts of one incidental character: “After sixteen years, I still bite her shoulders. She makes me feel like Hannibal crossing the Alps.” (“The Country Husband”)
It is fascinating to watch Cheever’s subjects and style evolve from the 1920s and ’30s to the 1960s — from an era of elevator men, fedoras, ubiquitous cigarettes, Martinis (with a capital “M”), and “affairs” to a time when “Artemis, the Honest Well Digger” can refer to the sexual act by its most unacceptable term and be whisked off to Washington, D.C., for making the mistake of falling in love in the U.S.S.R.
The surfaces here are untroubled, but the depths roil with repressed thoughts and emotions that are typical of Shady Hill and its ilk — but are neither acknowledged nor acceptable. Nearly everyone, whether they live in New York, Shady Hill, or Rome, is desperately seeking something — love, sex, passion, something — anything — to lift them above the towers of the city skyline where they work and the chimneys of the suburban trap they cannot — and really do not wish to — escape. An empty life is still a life of social acceptability.
1 September 2002
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf