John Cheever Essay - Cheever, John (Vol. 3)

Cheever, John (Vol. 3)

Cheever, John 1912–

Cheever is an American short story writer and novelist. An astute observer of middle-class morés, Cheever is best known for his contributions to The New Yorker and for the Wapshot novels and Bullet Park. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

There are moments … when Cheever does … seem to resemble Faulkner—in his distinguished story-telling gifts, his obsession with, and creative mastery of, a cultural territory of which he has made himself the sole owner and proprietor, even in his essential integrity and toughness of mind, which have enabled him to be consistently better than the medium he writes for and more serious than his middlebrow admirers would be able to recognize. There are also moments when he seems extraordinary in his power to infuse the commonplace and often merely dyspeptic metaphysical crises of modern life with something of the generalizing significance of myth, particularly at a time when it is precisely the ability to deal with the modern social experience in terms of any principle of imaginative coherence that seems to be missing in so many of our most important writers.

Certainly, more thoroughly than anyone else now at work in the field of the American short story, Cheever has explored the troubled surfaces of the new affluent society in which so many of us now live and cannot quite find our being; and as the best of the stories in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow make clear, he has also penetrated beneath the surfaces into the special conditions of psychic purgatory that we have been able to afford to create for ourselves. He understands just what happens when a man making too much money awakens to the fact that there is nothing left to spend it on except some form of anesthesia against the knowledge that there is nothing left to spend it on. His people are all exempt, at least in his later stories, from the problems of economic insufficiency; hence they are open to all the torments of economic surfeit. They drink too much, fornicate when they can, and then with all guilt and no pleasure, and the men ride commuter trains with the feeling that they are being borne along on fur-lined conveyor belts from somebody else's fabrication of Happiness to somebody else's merchandising image of Success, with no chance that anything ever again will happen to them. So they are obliged to take refuge in small arbitrary or merely ceremonial rebellions, in nostalgia for a past that they may not particularly have liked but in which they at least had something to feel, and in daydreams, not of Walter Mittyish grandiosity, but of almost girlish modesty and poignance….

One … notices, particularly in his novels, and more particularly in The Wapshot Scandal, that his most aberrant effects are not only represented in the clichés of aberration—in nymphomania, dipsomania, paranoia, and sexual narcissism—but are often neutralized by some last-minute withdrawal from the full implication of their meaning, some abrupt whimsical detour into palliating fantasy. And while less obvious in his stories, the same tendency is discernible in them. All discordant extremes of conduct and perception are finally absorbed into a fundamentally equable view of life, in much the same way that the New Yorker tends to substitute for the distasteful realities a kind of gloss or meringuey confection of the real, which provides us with a faint sickening flavor without actually disturbing our psychic digestion.

John W. Aldridge, "John Cheever and the Soft Sell of Disaster" (1964), in his Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis, McKay, 1966, pp. 171-77.

I start by observing that John Cheever is an intelligent, original and in many respects brilliant man; that he is one of the best living short-story writers in the language; that he has a remarkably acute nose for the significantly fascinating relation or situation, and a remarkably acute ear for the thing said, as such and such a person says it. He is possessed in fact, of almost all the talents….

I find the whole [of the Wapshot books, however,] fatally flawed, and by some cause that it is not very easy at first to identify. It is, I think, that Mr. Cheever is what, if one were counsel for his defense, and trying to stretch a point as far as it would go without parting in the middle, one would describe as "too relaxed"; and what the prosecutor would term "sloppy."

There is a lack of grip, even of the will to grip, and it seems to adversely affect the Wapshot books in two main ways: it leads to unredeemable carelessnesses and loosenesses of construction—and, on the emotional or even (it may be) moral side, to bouts of arrant sentimentality….

[The] whole atmosphere is just one shade of baby-pink warmer than life. The general purpose of these books is presumably to draw a picture of a certain form of society, a certain way of life—the modus vivendi of a small and ancient Massachusetts port which is earthy, eccentric, individualistic, innocent, passionate, rich, as contrasted with the smooth, impoverished, sophisticated uniformity of the city. Fine: but the vision gets over-simple, over-stressed, over-ripe—and, finally and disastrously, self-indulgent. It sets out to be social history but, the fatal specter of the Great American Novel hovering somewhere near, becomes an anatomy not of a life as it is, or recently was, but of a dream-life as a basically conventional and sentimental literary sense would have it be….

The trouble about sentimentality is that it debases the coinage. The whole tone of Mr. Cheever's mind is attractive: intelligent, sympathetic, exploring, sweet, clean. But in the end, feeling flows too readily, taps are dripping all over the place. Emotion gives way to acrobatics and the crises become unreal, unurgent, because we are so certain that all will happily be resolved in a page or two.

Hilary Corke, "The Wapshot Scandal" (originally published in The New Republic as "Sugary Days in Saint Botolphs"; copyright © by Harrison-Blaine, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 71-6.

The sixteen stories in Brigadier, all of them previously published in The New Yorker, have a wit and charm about them, and a deceptive simplicity that at once entertains and edifies. Cheever has said that he attempts in his fiction "to celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream." What he manages to do is to capture a sense of life that is at once fabulous and real, aesthetic and stark naked….

Cheever makes his reader feel the essential ambiguity of human experience. In "Reunion," a very brief, tragic-comic sketch, a son learns that his father is boorish. There is something very sad about his discovery, and something very laughable. In other stories expatriates yearn for old lands while feeling the comforts of the new, or adulterers feel proud and lost during an affair, or a man worth $900,000 is a failure. Nostalgia, so much a part of American fiction, is at once embraced and rejected by Cheever's characters. In the flash of an image (a set of books, autumn leaves, the Bishop of Pittsburgh in an inner tube, a note buried in a shoe polish can) Cheever's characters, "feeling sad, heavyhearted, important," are "caught up on those streams of feeling that never surface."…

Cheever's language is dazzling, his imagination vivid, his stories the proof that a creative temperament can make sense out of the diverse elements of which life is made.

William Heyen in, Studies in Short Fiction, Fall, 1965, pp. 79-80.

The stories of The Brigadier and the Golf Widow delighted and surprised me, even as in sum they seemed to give the lie to my particular reservations about the limitations of The Wapshot Scandal. Here, together with a deepening and broadening of Cheever's well-known means, was a new sense of technical innovation, an ease and playfulness which seemed sponsored by joy, more compassion for character and in, with, and among the human beings in these stories. As in no previous work—except perhaps in the historical recollections, the remembered myths of The Wapshot Chronicle—there was a sense of charity, the love without which all the natural creation—blue skies, bright flowers, clear streams, visible stars—which Cheever so passionately celebrates, would be as unnamed and incomplete as the Creation before the breath of God made Adam out of dust….

As a picture of our world and times Cheever's stylized vision is distorted, and wrapped in the enviable transparent materials (plastic?) of privilege. He remains a New Yorker writer and is increasingly a cartoonist. He remains a representative of the New England moralistic tradition—stern, unyielding, straitlaced, self-righteous…. The curious mixture of profound conservatism on the one hand and the "liberal" spirit which knows what is best and right for others and would impose those qualities upon them. One thinks of Thoreau who loved nature—as he found it by the tranquil shores of Walden Pond.

George Garrett, "Afterword" (1969) to his essay, "John Cheever and the Charms of Innocence: The Craft of The Wapshot Scandal" (1964), in The Sounder Few: Essays from the Hollins Critic, edited by R. H. W. Dillard, George Garrett, and John Rees Moore, University of Georgia Press, 1971, pp. 33-9.

John Cheever has been writing short stories for a long time now, with each along roughly the same lines of imagination as the one before it. Right along, his theme has been normality on the verge of giving way to madness. His characters threaten at every turn to interrupt the smooth surface of their world and to yield up the function of a sanity they appear to detest. Inasmuch as Mr. Cheever's characters and themes are thus predictable, it is reasonable to inquire what makes him good, and this collection [The World of Apples] gives as satisfactory evidence as any of the cause: He has the gift of sympathy for his characters, whatever darkness of nature he has chosen to represent in them. There are, furthermore, few fiction writers in America who can turn a sentence as well, as interestingly, as Mr. Cheever can. There are no details of narrative so small but that they do not work themselves into a shapely thought; no observations so trivial that they cannot be gathered into a supple line.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 8, 1973, p. 53.

John Cheever's new collection of stories, "The World of Apples," his first collection in nine years, is an extraordinary book, a transfiguring experience for the reader, and Cheever at his best. There is more flexibility, daring, diversity and vigor in this book than in any other of Cheever's (except perhaps "Bullet Park"), as though Cheever were growing progressively young. Cheever seems the only present writer able to produce enduring short classics, such as "The Ocean," "The Enormous Radio," "The National Pastime" and "The Swimmer," and in this collection, with the title piece, "The World of Apples," there's another to add. Yet Cheever as a writer is never complacent. He enters each of these pieces as if to save his life….

Many of the stories in this collection (there are 10 in all) deal with the disruptions in family life and marriage caused by lack of love, misunderstanding or temporary insanity in one of the partners—which is usually caused by lack of love…. There are many man-eating females and most of the men have at least a trace of paranoia….

All of which may sound very depressing to read, but it's not. Cheever is after these malaises with a fearlessness that helps illuminate the darkest of them, and often inspires. There are few contemporary writers as rewarding to read. The bons mots and wisdom make one want to leave lines or check-marks along paragraph after paragraph. His prose is filled with country air, light, tenderness, grace and redemption, leaves, the murmur of water, and a propinquity to the great love that might shake the earth for a change. The sonority and the rumbling and muscular charge of the prose give it the oracular tone of a prophet of doom or providence, depending on the mood….

Cheever is as much a master of the short form as Chekhov, and should be recognized as such. He shares Chekhov's gentility, ingenuous warmth, humor, universality and all-seeing eye for the absurdities of the world and the foibles and weaknesses of humankind. Which Cheever, like Chekhov, would generously forgive, one senses, if there weren't some way of alleviating the general condition, at least briefly, by bringing the lightning-bolt of illumination or a belly laugh to the serf, housewife, scribbler of official documents, scholar or, as in this case, the man who will write a review in order to have "The World of Apples" in his hands sooner than usual, and be surprised to feel (because he thinks he knows Cheever) how the universe of the book is overlaid with "the healing sound of rain."

L. Woiwode, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 20, 1973, pp. 1, 26.

I happen to believe that John Cheever is our best living writer of short stories: a Chekhov of the exurbs. This view is not commonly shared. Critics tend to take an avuncular attitude toward Cheever; they have already written their one review of him and stashed it away in a drawer, waiting for the next book. Anyone who writes so clearly and so well, about such ordinary matters as marriage and children, cannot be presumed to be highly serious. He must be trying to glide by on charm.

See how effortlessly he goes about his business in this new collection [The World of Apples]. He enters his stories the way the rest of us leave our homes, opening the door, stepping out, getting rained on by the day. The awareness of each story seems random; it is composed of what is noticed. But watch: the noticing begins to fix on discrepancies. What is perceived is out of synch with what is felt. What is said is so often wholly inappropriate to the circumstances—women, usually, say those awful things in Cheever's fiction—that the story becomes a mugging. It's as if we had agreed to pretend that politeness is reality; then rudeness, aggression, attack not only our notion of ourselves but our notion of how the universe is supposed to be organized….

Custom and ceremony are in shambles. Innocence and beauty are remembered, not experienced; and even the memories are suspect: what is being remembered is the desire for innocence, beauty, and sanctuary, rather than the fulfillment. And what remains after the stories have gone is the watermark on the day's page, the blood-vein in the mugger's eyelid: chance and terror….

Irony can be used the way Cheever uses it: protectively, on behalf of ardor and intelligence and clemency, even while these words, these values really, are inadequate to cope with a world of chance, of evil. Inside Cheever's irony, love and humor are preserved, not abused. A sadness obtains. His fiction has consistently been about a certain failure of reciprocity in our relations with the rest of the universe. (Women, especially, are unknowable and chancy; I suppose someone will write a tract about it, missing the point.) What we don't know, didn't expect, and can't understand overwhelms our decent impulses. We lose. We are not, however, ugly for losing. And the rain tries to heal.

John Leonard, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), June, 1973, pp. 112-14.

Not since Proust has a writer been so concerned, and so interestingly concerned, with memory. John Cheever's present itself has a quality of the past. His people are remembered posthumously while they are alive….

Cheever's writing, its reflective, adult style, is charged with tranquility. In these stories violence has been subdued, thwarted by it, made innocuous; wasps blundering to stillness in a spiderweb.

This allows us to understand eccentricity: the most charming and characteristic aspect of John Cheever's writing…. The eccentricity is an 18th-century invention. In the 20th we have only clinical sorts of tragic and wasteful madness. Eccentricity is private and, well—pastoral. It's a trait of the small town: agrarian America. There are no urban eccentricities, certainly none in Cheever; they require patience, solitude, single-mindedness and, usually, at least a small independent income….

[Two] words ["quaintness" and "innocence"] are perfect, concise; they denote John Cheever's intellectual business. Quaintness, for its double sense: eccentricity and anachronism. Innocence because there is no writer of Cheever's stature for whom guilt has so little fascination. He simply doesn't care to assign blame. Moreover, these attributes—quaintness and innocence—are given preponderantly to the male. There is mild sexual skirmishing in Cheever. The female tends to be more aggressive, she copes; and she remembers less, cherishes less. It is in the Cheever male, oddly, that nostalgia gets stored. The male broods. He is a quaint, tranquil, passive instrument: nearly vestigial. And somehow better than the female, deeper. John Cheever is a gentle chauvinist pig….

America is a land of the professionally blamed; it is our recent custom to feel responsible personally for assassinations, racial enormities, wars. And it has been the preoccupation of literature to present a higher morality or, anyway, a higher moralizing. In the college anthologies of a 21st century, Cheever will suffer, I imagine. He is not, in that public sense, an important writer. He doesn't want to be. He refuses to be. I like his courage….

The World of Apples is a sharp repudiation of realism. In the age of Tom Wolfe, of fiction as faction, Cheever's restraint is heroic. He remembers for us another time, perhaps apocryphal, when men were self-defined, not aspects of their environment, when the sleepy interconnections between person and person seemed commerce enough for a lifetime.

D. Keith Mano, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), July 1, 1973, pp. 1, 10.

When John Cheever is in top form his wit combines humor and acerbity. His characters are desperately lonely, living in a shallow and terrible world, a place "where a man was wealthy and esteemed for having written a book about turds."…

Cheever's is a domain without redemption.

Charles Deemer, "Old Masters' New Stories," in New Leader, September 17, 1973, p. 20.

Cheever—Salinger and Updike were to be like him in this respect—began and somehow has remained a startlingly precocious, provocatively "youthful" writer. But unlike Salinger and Updike, he was to seem more identifiable with the rest of The New Yorker, just as his complaint about American life was more concrete and his fiction more expectable. His stories regularly became a form of social lament—writing never hard to take. What they said, and Cheever openly said it, was that America was still a dream, a fantasy; America did not look lived in, Americans were not really settled in. In their own minds they were still on their way to the Promised Land. In story after story Cheever's characters, guiltily, secretly disillusioned and disabused with their famous "way of life" (always something that could be put into words and therefore promised, advertised and demonstrated), suddenly acted out their inner subversion. They became "eccentrics," crazily swimming from pool to pool, good husbands who fell in love with the baby-sitter. Sometimes, like "Aunt Justina," they even died in the living room and could not be moved because of the health laws and restriction by the zoning law on any funeral parlors in the neighborhood.

Acting out one's loneliness, one's death wish—any sudden eccentricity embarrassing everybody in the neighborhood—these make for situation comedy. Life is turning one's "normal" self inside out at a party. The subject of Cheever's stories is regularly a situation that betrays the basic "unreality" of some character's life. It is a trying-out of freedom in the shape of the extreme, the unmentionable. Crossing the social line is one aspect of comedy, and Cheever demonstrates it by giving a social shape to the most insubstantial and private longings. Loneliness is the dirty little secret, a personal drive so urgent and confusing that it comes out a vice. But the pathetic escapade never lasts very long. We are not at home here, says Cheever. But there is no other place for us to feel that we are not at home.

In these terms the short story becomes not the compression of an actual defeat but the anecdote of a temporary crisis. The crisis is the trying-out of sin, escape, the abyss….

My deepest feeling about Cheever is that his marvelous brightness is an effort to cheer himself up. His is the only impressive energy in a perhaps too equitable and prosperous suburban world whose subject is internal depression, the Saturday night party, and the post-martini bitterness. Feeling alone is the air his characters breathe. Just as his characters have no feeling of achievement in their work, so they never collide with or have to fight a society which is actually America in allegory. All conflict is in the head. People just disappear, as from a party. Cheever's novels—The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal, Bullet Park—tend to muffle his characters in meaning even more than the short stories do. Cheever is such an accomplished performer of the short story that the foreshortening of effect has become second nature with him. There is the shortest possible bridge between cause and effect. The New Yorker column is still the inch of ivory on which he writes. Cheever writes always about "America." He is an intellectual. The Wapshot novels are wholly allegories of place showing the degeneration of the old New England village, "St. Botolph's," into the symbolic (but spreading) suburb that is "Proxmire Manor."

Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 111-14.