Cheever, John (Vol. 11)
Cheever, John 1912–
Cheever is an American short story writer and novelist. His fictional world is that of suburban New York and New England, his typical characters are of the upper middle class. This closed social milieu contrasts sharply with the chaos and despair of life in Cheever's fiction, resulting in confusion and frustration for his characters. Cheever, however, is a humanist, and believing in the rejuvenative power of love, treats his afflicted protagonists with compassion in prose noted for its wit and verbal splendor. Cheever was awarded the 1978 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 7, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Joyce Carol Oates
In Cheever's imagination the concrete, visual world is transformed into emotion, and emotion into something akin to nostalgia. The senses, alerted to a patch of blue sky or swirling leaves or a sudden shaft of sunlight, are stimulated to a recollection that transcends the present and transcends, when Cheever's writing is at its most powerful, the very instrument of perception that is its vehicle. Hence the peculiar airiness of Falconer, the translucent quality of its protagonist Ezekiel Farragut …, the insubstantial quality of the narrative itself—though it purports to be located in a very real penitentiary and has been interpreted, by various critics, as a triumph of 'realism.'
The novel is a fable, a kind of fairy tale; near-structureless, it has the feel of an assemblage of short stories, and is consequently most successful in fragments: in patches of emotion. The world we glimpse through Farragut's eyes is as capricious and as alarming as a Chagall painting, and while it is occasionally beautiful it is also rather ugly, and at its worst tawdrily unconvincing—when narrative is forced to serve the demands of theme and Farragut 'escapes' prison by hiding in a dead man's shroud and afterward escapes the shroud by a maneuver that would strike us as embarrassingly awkward in a children's movie. No matter that Cheever cannot make his story probable: perhaps it is enough that it works on the level of myth, as a sort of death-and-resurrection...
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For three decades the legato Cheever prose has remained as urbane and tempting as an ad in the New Yorker, sharing with the magazine that has published nearly all his stories a zealous attention to surfaces, a scrupulous rendition of speech and, not the least of its attractions, a supercilious tone that separates its uncommon reader from the gaucheness and banality of common experience.
Cheever has been called the American Chekhov, and it is true that both writers have a ruminative manner, dwell wistfully on lost opportunities, and are masters at conjuring up a mood, an excitation of the nerves, a vapor of unstated emotion hanging in the air. But when they undertake their favorite identical subject, the seesaw between tranquility and disturbance in marriage, we see how enormous a role the accident of disposition plays in creating the hierarchy of art. Chekhov's plain and pliant responses make us feel that marital disharmony is only one aspect of life, part of the natural order of things, rather than an occasion for outrage. We sense the Russian writer's intuitive sympathy with all of his characters. Cheever's sympathies spring unaccountably back to the observer, as if he were personally affronted, violated in his finer sensibilities by the shabby tales he relates. His heroes and heroines are usually caught in a spiritual flagrante delicto, a bit awkward and pathetic as they come into view through a light frost of derision. (p. 16)
If Cheever is no analyst of motive, it may be because he regards the battle of the sexes...
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[Cheever's] sympathy for people is consistently strong. [He] shows a steady affection for even the nastiest of his characters—even at their most degraded moments. In the darkest of his stories [collected in The Stories of John Cheever] there shines a light; that light is Cheever's loyalty to human beings—in spite of ourselves….
What makes the affirmation of humanity in Cheever's work so successful is that he never chooses easy subjects for love…. Cheever writes about characters difficult to forgive, but he usually forgives them…. It is all the more astonishing an achievement that he reaches such respect for life in spite of the way the world is. (p. 44)
Since I'm a novelist—whose taste lies solidly with the novel—I must add that this awesome collection of craft and feeling reads like a novel. There is not only the wonder of finishing one good story after another, there is that cumulative weight, that sense of deepening, that I have formerly associated only with the consecutiveness of a true (and truly narrative) novel. (p. 45)
The variety in these stories and the constancy of Cheever's careful voice give this collection the breadth and wholeness of the biggest of novels….
Without quarreling over the difference in magnitude between the art forms of the novel and the short story, it is simply possible to say that John Cheever is the best storyteller living; he practices what he preaches better than any of us, and we believe him when he writes, "We can cherish nothing less than our random understanding of death and the earth-shaking love that draws us to one another." (p. 46)
John Irving, "Facts of Living," in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), September 30, 1978, pp. 44-6.
Some words by their very nature define not our world but an ideal one, one in which we can believe but not live. It was always John Cheever's achievement to see that the middle class pretends that these words define reality, and then acts according to that faith, so that keeping up appearances is not only a desperate task but a noble stance….
In an imagined world where moral truths fly in the face of facts, Cheever's stories [collected in The Stories of John Cheever] set up extreme tensions between what should be believed and what must be seen. (p. 93)
Decorum is a concept not often defended or celebrated these days, and the strain of keeping it up is a frequent theme of Cheever's more recent stories…. Vulgarity does threaten the myths by which Cheever's people live, and their perplexity is genuine enough, but Cheever's decorum begins to sound defensive and to run headlong into simple nostalgia. (p. 94)
[The] best of Cheever's more recent stories reveal the mellow craftsmanship of an old master with an abundance of tales to tell….
Cheever has become a virtuoso of the excursive who loves his shaggy dog and prefers the telling to the tale. (p. 95)
Charles Nicol, "The Truth, the Impartial Truth," in Harper's (copyright © 1978 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; excerpted from the October, 1978 issue by special permission), October, 1978, pp. 93-5.
John Cheever has been publishing his short stories for over 30 years now, and he has gradually spread before us a landscape so solid and believable that the average American reader could almost draw a map of Shady Hill, Bullet Park, or St. Botolphs. We know intimately the Cheever hero—an unassuming man whose innocence and optimism often give him the appearance of someone much younger. And we know the basis of most Cheever plots: a subtle tension between what Cheever calls the "facts" (the moral ugliness, or at best the irrationality, of the real world) and the "truth," which is the underlying goodness and order in which the hero places an abiding faith.
But we tend to remember only this second, gentler side, when recalling Cheever's stories from a distance…. We have an impression of a sort of tapestry, richly woven, stylized, eerily still—if you can imagine a tapestry that depicts barbecue grills and power lawnmowers, and chlorinated swimming pools….
[The] effect of such a mass of writing [found in The Stories of John Cheever] … is to heighten that tension between the "facts" and the "truth." The darker side of the world seems to stand out more distinctly; the main characters' stubborn hopefulness seems more desperate. (p. 45)
Reading The Stories of John Cheever is not the patchwork experience that you might expect; it's more like reading a novel, being tugged along by a...
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Though Cheever disclaims a documentary purpose and (rightly) resents comparison to a social nit-picker like the later John O'Hara, his stories do have a powerful documentary interest—and why not? Documentation of the way we—or some of us—live now has been historically one of those enriching impurities of fiction that only a mad theorist would wish to filter out. Less grand than Auchincloss, subtler and cleverer than Marquand, infinitely more generous than O'Hara, Cheever has written better than anyone else of that little world which upper-middle-class Protestants have contrived to maintain in their East Side apartments, in certain suburbs, in summer cottages on Nantucket, in Adirondack lodges, on New England...
(The entire section is 985 words.)