John Cheever Essay - Cheever, John (Vol. 7)

Cheever, John (Vol. 7)

Cheever, John 1912–

Cheever is "a Chekhov of the suburbs"—with a touch of the absurd, the fantastical. An American, he is well-known for his New Yorker stories and his Wapshot novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[The] narrow thread on which happiness in the suburbs depends all are images of Cheever's sense of the modern fate. The turns in his stories, though, cannot be dismissed as tricks but must be given their due as repeated statements of the lack of connection between cause and effect. (p. 550)

Cheever is trying to handle his knowledge of human nature in the still recognizable Transcendentalist way. For Emerson, evil is an illusion; it is the lack of good and how can the lack of something be real? The argument can sound like a sophistical gimmick, the philosophical equivalent of Cheever's tricky endings. The voice of authorial wonder in Cheever's fiction is his device for refusing to acknowledge the finality of evil. (pp. 550-51)

What becomes clearest perhaps from a survey of the career of John Cheever, one filled with achievements of considerable substance but inconclusive still, is the drastic change in the nature of individualism that has taken place. Thoreau and Emerson protested against the follies of modern life with a contrariness that they insisted amounted to no more than reasonableness. The unlived life was what Thoreau opposed. But he never believed otherwise than that we could only have so much of one kind of life as we were willing to give up of another. The economy of the universe did not allow for having everything. Hence the solitary disciplined existence at Walden. This principle of economy provided Thoreau's moral intuition: the fixed point among the variable moods. But how small a band the Concord reformers seem now! Their formulas for living we could almost take as only literary parables although we know better. We are tempted to do so because looking back we most notice that there were fewer prophets then and fewer disciples and fewer opponents and fewer people altogether on the earth. The delicate balance of aesthetic and moral perceptions had not yet been subjected to the pressure of great numbers. The Cheever world, on the contrary, is bulging with people who have discovered the value of life and who suffer harsh agonies at the thought of its loss or diminishment, so that it is hard to tell whether their sense of the apocalypse is any more than a heightened awareness of individual mortality. Cheever, for his part, has never been able to trust preachers who would claim the right to deprive us of our fictions and to force the hard realities upon us. Even though we may acknowledge to ourselves the unreality of our lives, we cannot tolerate those who would claim to possess reality unto themselves. It is no wonder that Cheever's career as a writer of fiction is difficult to appraise. (pp. 551-52)

Eugene Chesnick, "The Domesticated Stroke of John Cheever," in The New England Quarterly (copyright 1971 by The New England Quarterly), December, 1971, pp. 531-52.

The [title] story "The World of Apples" seems to me virtually flawless, standing out in an otherwise uneven and rather tired collection, and reminding us that Cheever at his best is a remarkable writer….

Cheever's … art,… secure [in its] management of a limited range of tones and moods, is most impressive at moments of breakthrough, when it finds strange and haunting images of the mad or the marvelous penetrating ordinary experience…. Outside Cheever's neat narratives, there is usually more life lurking than he or the reader can quite cope with, and its intrusion into the stories provides an enlivening shock to his best work.

The danger is that a talent for disturbance can lapse into mannerism. Several stories in The World of Apples strain pretty hard for their surprises….

Cheever has always liked to keep his people on the move, packing them off from where they don't belong to new places where they don't belong either. But the geography begins to seem less a metaphor and more a convenience—people get to Italy or wherever too expeditiously, and those back home are overcluttered with wistful souvenirs of happy days when they were young and alive in Rome. Often Cheever writes as if he wished he were somewhere else, too, and, in his firm and elegant art, he takes easy ways out. (p. 35)

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1973 NYREV, Inc.), May 17, 1973.

It is John Cheever's special gift to be able to tame the fantastic with a hilariously patient examination of the surprises this planet throws in the path of his victimised characters….

A number of the stories [in The World of Apples] concern bewildered men whose wives—you can imagine them posing for Thurber cartoons—are wilfully, stonily incompatible. The men fret, pleading for love: one tries to solve his marital difficulties with geometry; another goes to the theatre where his errant wife is appearing in a nude review, and taking off his clothes as the cast commands, attempts a reconciliation; a third invents a lovely sprite who turns out to be as worthless as his wife.

Farce is tempered with the poignant and exact, so in the title story, about a wild old wicked poet in Italy, a transformation takes place. The figure touched by comedy is given humanity; he is not being mocked but celebrated. How easy it would be for any of these stories to lapse into the grotesque or arabesque, a kind of Borges of the suburbs. But it never happens. The book is a joy. (p. 334)

Paul Theroux, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 8, 1974.

[John Cheever] is unrivalled as a slit-eyed chronicler of Suburbia, USA, and all the adultery, bastardy, drunkenness, idiocy and male prostitution which this naturally implies. His speciality is the American male's confusion of identity and loss of social equilibrium, and that moment when one feels "as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one's purest memories and ambitions"….

The World of Apples will not surprise Mr Cheever's devotees with its characters or its geography. He likes writing about writers, lust on Atlantic liners, and European travel; and the American who does not visit Italy in the course of his stories must be classed as the exception. But it is just this familiar locale that gives Mr Cheever's stories their rhythm and addictive charm: it is even possible to forgive him at one point for a shameless re-use of earlier material (a quarrel between an Italian mistress and servant in "Montraldo" is repeated from "Boy in Rome" published fifteen years ago). Indeed, it is when Mr Cheever strays from familiar ground that he is less than successful: thus, his description of a package tour to Moscow contains only the triter absurdities.

In "A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear" (1961), Mr Cheever made a list of subjects he considered it unilluminating for a writer to treat; it included descriptions of sexual commerce, lushes, homosexuals, and all parts for Marlon Brando. In The World of Apples he has relented on the first (which may let in the last as well). But then, these days, one of the diminishing number of magazines which publish short stories is Playboy. It is an irony that Mr Cheever would enjoy.

"Forbidden Fruit," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 15, 1974, p. 253.

The World of Apples, his sixth collection of short fiction and his first in almost a decade, is very good Cheever, and even good Cheever is considerably better than most of the work of his contemporaries in the short fiction of manners.

Over the years Cheever's method has loosened up considerably; it is more varied, more flexible, than it was in such earlier collections as The Enormous Radio or The Housebreaker of Shady Hill. He has become increasingly fond of the leisurely, discursive, gossipy family chronicle which he has always been able to do so effectively. Characteristic is a piece like "The Jewels of the Cabots," a saga in miniature of life in the New England village of St. Botolph's which is as familiar to Cheever's followers as Polish ghettos are to Singer's. Reminiscent of the author's most successful stories in this field—"The Day the Pig Fell into the Well," for example—"The Jewels of the Cabots" is Cheever at his best, a series of large and small disasters, beautifully controlled, illuminated by the effective juxtaposition of the trivial and the significant, the tragic and the comic. In the midst of reminiscences of minor childhood experiences, or recollections of love, adultery, and murder, we tend to remember most distinctly such asides as the advantages of the overhand stroke as opposed to the sidestroke: "When the ship sinks I will try to reach the life raft with an overhand and drown stylishly, whereas if I had used a Lower-Class sidestroke I would have lived forever." (pp. 719-20)

The narrator of "The Jewels of the Cabots" comments that "children drown, beautiful women are mangled in automobile accidents, cruise ships founder, and men die lingering deaths in mines and submarines, but you will find none of this in my accounts." The statement is a key to Cheever's work in general. As I have commented elsewhere, in the final analysis he is a conventional moralist, albeit a highly sophisticated one. He is concerned with large problems: hypocrisy, individual and societal idiocy, the absurdity of sham and pretentiousness, the lack of love and understanding and the often disastrous effects of that lack. But in spite of the failure of so many of his people to find love and understanding, and in spite of the failures of marriage and the disruptions in family and professional life which appear and reappear from his very earliest to his most recent stories, the final effect, the pervasive mood of his work, is anything but somber. (pp. 720-21)

William Peden, in Sewanee Review (© 1974 by The University of the South), Fall, 1974.

Cheever has used the seeming conventions of New Yorker fiction to create a form of short fiction that transcends the conventions without quite violating them. His best stories move from a base in a mimetic presentation of surface reality—the scenery of apparently successful American middle class life—to fables of heroism. Superficially, his people seem like the gray flannel suited men of another decade; on the surface, they are "antiheroes," stock figures in American popular writing of the recent past. In fact, they are desperate men driven to defending themselves from and against the culture. The stories chronicle a final statement against the decay of youth and the futility of action ("O Youth and Beauty!"), anxiety about failure that is close to the heart of American adult experience ("The Swimmer"), madness ("The Ocean"), the need to exercise some control over one's life ("The Music Teacher"), and the inevitable confrontation in the problem of commitment ("The Scarlet Moving Van"). The stories become fables about heroism—even if the central characters are not quite in themselves heroes: directly and obliquely, they must face action, responsibility, anxiety, and failure. (p. 147)

Like Randall Patrick McMurphy of Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Eliot Rosewater of Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Cheever's people are "mythic," they are exaggerated, caricatures, characters who at first seem "real" and yet who move out of the conventions of middlebrow realistic fiction into another territory. That territory is one of the few ways of suggesting American experience at the present. It is one of Cheever's most telling achievements to have used the machinery of the conventional realistic story—for he is the teller of stories to the middle class—to imply and hint at a quality of experience that defies the limitations of his genre. The Cheever hero faces not the problem of the West, the frontier, the Indian, or the wilderness as it was stated and evoked in American writing of another time; the wilderness is now on the 5:42 for Bullet Park, the third martini, falling in love with the baby sitter, the swimming pools across Westchester County. Cheever's country is mostly dour and disappointing and yet this is not a fashionable restatement, restructuring of the landscape of the Wasteland, now the zombies at the cocktail party, the stupefying accumulation of wealth, the faceless commuters, their paper shuffling jobs, their lives denied nourishing tradition and religion. Against these apparent givens of the culture and of experience itself, aging, the loss of ideals and the impossibility of simplicity of emotion and action, his focal characters in his best short fiction persist in attempting some definition of self when confronted with adversity, inner and outer, that gives a measure to their lives. (p. 148)

"The Swimmer," perhaps Cheever's best known story, starts within the conventions of the New Yorker tale. Again a Sunday, this time the afternoon "when everyone sits around saying: 'I drank too much last night…. We all drank too much…. It must have been the wine.'" The reader seems to be assured that he knows this country well. It looks like what it's supposed to be: a slice of upper crust American affluence. The fiction, however, moves away from its conventions as Neddy Merrill … decides to swim cross county, via his friends' pools, to his own house…. Neddy's swim, his odyssey through the mind of a particular kind of modern America, is alive with perils that suggest that his summer afternoon journey is more a species of nightmare than a presentation of daytime reality. Cheever has developed in "The Swimmer" a ghastly presentation of what it means to swim in American values of success, recognition, and status. (p. 149)

[It] makes little difference whether ["The Swimmer"] is an angle on madness or a paradigm of deep but rarely uttered American fears about the quality of our life. What is central to this story and a good many more in Cheever's work is that the hero must try to establish who he is in relation to an essentially meaningless—even absurd—world around him. He must try to act in some way … so as to affirm his own being…. It matters not a bit that Cash Bentley or Neddy Merrill fail—fail? there were no goals to begin with…. Read this way, the Cash Bentley of "O Youth and Beauty!" is not a pathetic middle-aged jock acting out once more the glories of his lost youth; he is a man trying to redefine himself against the contours of smug and shallow values, values that are mainly rotted with drink and acquisitiveness. So too is Neddy Merrill's cross county swim, be it actuality or dream, a gesture of heroic revolt. And if not heroic, something close to that; for Neddy on that swim does seem a fool or madman, no matter whether the swim is in the dark pools of his mind or in the sunlight of that Sunday. It is of the essence that they do, not that they win. To perform is to live, is to make a statement about the value of living over the descent into nothingness and even as that nothingness seems rich in good friends, good drink and good food, the pleasures of the family and the recognition of community. Perhaps what is so touching and even old fashioned about these heroes is their belief that there is finally a truth to experiences and that it can be realized in the form of action, no matter how futile or even symbolic. (p. 150)

There is a madness to this suburban world of Cheever's, this demand for action, blind, foolish, senseless, even puerile, as it confronts the equally disastrous threats of paralysis that suggests the terrors of Beckett's The Unnamable: "I can't go on, you must go on, I'll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me…. when I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."…

The man who does not respond to the call is in the world of Cheever's absurd and yet moral fictions the man who has collapsed into the ultimate terror: paralysis. Many of his people experience that. And yet for the aged poet of "The World of Apples" and for Cash Bentley and Neddy Merrill there is still the lovely, legendary, and briefly heroic moments of hurdling living room furniture or swimming cross county, even when the race ends in death or the swim concludes with the man confronting his abandoned home. It is one version of the hero creating his own legend, even if that legend seems pointless, futile, finally absurd. And that may be the last resort of heroism. (p. 152)

Stephen C. Moore, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1976, University of Utah), Spring, 1976.

In the coining of images and incidents, John Cheever has no peer among contemporary American fiction writers. His short stories dance, skid, twirl, and soar on the strength of his abundant invention; his novels tend to fly apart under its impact. His first, The Wapshot Chronicle, was unified by a pervading nostalgia and a magnificent old man's journal; his second, The Wapshot Scandal, amounted to a debris of brilliant short stories. Bullet Park, his third, holds together but just barely, by the thinnest of threads. (p. 427)

The book's broad streak of the fantastic has been deplored by some critics—the same critics, I suspect, who readily grant emancipation from the probable to younger, overtly "experimental" novelists like John Hawkes and James Purdy. A more serious weakness lies in the similarity of the two heroes; though intended, perhaps, to be contrasting polarities of the American psyche, [they] are in fact much alike—decent hard-drinking hommes moyens sensuels oppressed by a shapeless smog of anxiety…. The tender, twinkling prose has an undercurrent of distraction and impatience.

Bullet Park succeeds, I think, as a slowly revolving mobile of marvellously poeticized moments…. America's urban hell presses hard upon the suburbia that was meant to be paradise. Cheever maintains his loyalty to the middling and the decent, but speaks increasingly in the accents of a visionary. (p. 428)

John Updike, "And Yet Again Wonderful" (originally published in The Sunday Times (London)), in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1967, 1973, 1974, 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1976, pp. 427-28.