“Fiction is not cryptoautobiography,” Cheever warned with the insistence of a man either with a mission or with something to hide. Posthumously published biographical materials make it abundantly clear that Cheever’s fiction follows Cheever’s life rather closely but never deductively. “Fiction,” he claimed, “is our most intimate and acute means of communication, at a profound level, about our deepest apprehensions and intuitions on the meaning of life and death”; it is “our only coherent and consistent, continuous, history of man’s struggle to be illustrious.” For Cheever, then, fiction was much more a spiritual than a biographical or psychoanalytical exercise, closer to hymn and prayer than to either confession or disclosure.
His essentially affirmative vision and lyrical style are not merely and superficially willed; rather, they are earned. His description of fiction as “the bringing together of disparate elements” places as great an emphasis on the apparent randomness of contemporary experience as it does on the elusive wholeness of being for which his characters yearn. “The most useful image I have today,” Cheever noted in 1959, “is of a man in a quagmire, looking into a tear in the sky.” One year later, Cheever would flatly assert that life in the United States in 1960 “is hell.”
This apprehensiveness is every bit as much cultural as personal and could, Cheever felt, be attributed to a “loss of serenity in our lives,” to a “loss of tradition,” that forced him as well as his characters and readers into ceaseless acts of moral (and, for Cheever, aesthetic) improvisation. The decorous surface of his prose stands in marked contrast to the nonlinear development of his plots and his characters’ lives. At its worst, this decorum (evident as well in the veneer of respectability of Cheever’s suburban stories, the mask of a venereal itch that is itself a mask for or symbol of something deeper still) seems little more than a form of what in Bullet Park Cheever, perhaps not so tongue-in-cheek, calls “spiritual cheerleading.”
This spiritual cheerleading may seem especially odd to find in the fiction of a writer whose early work was strongly influenced by that of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway distrusted the very words—honor, love, courage, valor, and so forth—on which Cheever’s lyrical vision came more and more to rely. Cheever’s fiction convinces the reader on the basis not of what it denies but instead of what it affirms by virtue of its emotional effect and cumulative power. It evokes a nearly liturgical dimension that leads the reader to believe, as Cheever did, that the purpose of both writing and living is to enlarge humankind rather than to diminish it.
Because his vision is earned rather than willed, the fiction operates not at the extreme of faith but between the poles which Cheever variously described: expansion and constriction (or confinement), “grossness and aspiration,” a world which “lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream” versus a world grown suddenly incoherent, inhospitable, even “preposterous.” In Cheever’s stories and novels, opposites meet but do not necessarily merge as the narrative teeters precariously between the prosaic and the poetic, the practical and the visionary. Even Cheever’s distinctive narrative voice proves hard to pin down, managing to be at once compassionate yet detached, celebratory yet satirical.
Cheever’s characters often find themselves similarly (ambivalently, even ambiguously) situated—not so much placed as displaced, or what Cheever’s friend Ralph Ellison would call dispossessed. They suffer, often seriocomically, from loneliness and from a loss of self-esteem; often (but by no means always) they live well (if precariously) financially, but they are generally bereft emotionally and spiritually impoverished. The...
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discontinuity of their lives often drives them to an earlier time, to tradition, and to memory, but their nostalgic desire to recover what they have lost—a sense of purpose and security—is often one-sided and therefore mistaken in that they fail to realize that nostalgia is as much “a force of expectation” as it is a longing to recover the past.
At their most successful, the search for spiritual wholeness leads them “to build a bridge” in an effort to connect the discontinuous facts of their lives, including the unruliness of their sexual desires. Asked by John Hersey to explain the “blurted quality” of his prose, Cheever responded by attributing it to “some ungainliness in my spiritual person that I cannot master,” least of all by psychoanalysis, which Cheever, like many of his characters, had tried and which, he believed, places too much emphasis on motivation and not enough on aspiration.
The critical response to Cheever’s work has been uneven and unsure, less because of any difficulty in the fiction than from attempts on the part of reviewers and critics to apply the right kind of rigid formulas that Cheever’s work both invites and resists. For example, closely associated with The New Yorker magazine, Cheever was soon classified and accordingly dismissed as a “New Yorker writer.” Reading him as a realist, critics paid scant attention to the strong element of fabulism in his fiction. Judged a writer of short stories, he had his novels discussed as proof of his failure to make the leap to the “more demanding” form of the novel. Seen as a comic writer, he was judged a literary lightweight, a naïve optimist, an apologist for the suburbs, or alternately a satirist of those same suburbs.
In fact, Cheever’s settings kept changing—city, country, St. Botolphs, suburbs, Italy, prison—but his characters’ predicaments remained essentially the same. At a time of considerable literary experimentation, Cheever found himself either praised or damned as a conservative in terms of both values and style—this despite the fact that his achievement derives in large measure from his having so successfully managed either to transcend or to undermine the very formulas used to pigeonhole his work.
Cheever not only gave new life to the short story and, thanks to the immense success of his retrospective The Stories of John Cheever (1978), opened up the market for other short-fiction writers, he also broke down the line separating story from novel, realism from fabulism, convention from innovation (or what he liked to call “improvisation”) so unobtrusively that his efforts largely went unnoticed as he went about his chosen task of communicating modern people’s deepest apprehensions and aspirations.
The Wapshot Chronicle
First published: 1957
Type of work: Novel
In this family chronicle, the youngest generation of Wapshots encounters the waywardness of love and of contemporary life.
The Wapshot Chronicle, Cheever’s first novel, begins with a Fourth of July celebration in St. Botolphs, “an old river town,” a world of the imagination modeled loosely on Cheever’s birthplace, Quincy, Massachusetts. Mishap—a firecracker exploding underneath the horse pulling a wagonload of the town’s most upright women—is turned to narrative advantage; it is the excuse the novel needs to take the reader on a tour of the area. The pace changes and the continuity dissolves as the novel moves through three progressively shorter parts of seventeen, then ten, and finally five chapters, to end back in St. Botolphs on yet another Fourth of July a few years later.
Against the discontinuity of the intervening narrative, the novel’s frame takes on a special but nevertheless ambiguous significance. It adds an element of ceremony but also of arbitrariness that corresponds to the relation between St. Botolphs and the world outside its borders, where much of the novel takes place. The relation between these worlds and between tradition and independence (itself an American tradition), between a past which both sustains and confines and a present which frees but also dismays and displaces forms the thematic center of a novel that is about the need to bridge the two worlds and all they represent.
Descended (in a double sense) from a long line of New England sea captains, the mythically named Leander Wapshot stands at the novel’s moral center. Lusty, sometimes drunk, but always ceremonious, he is Cheever’s diminished hero, captain of the Topaze, a barely seaworthy tourist ferry owned by his eccentric, sexless sister, Honora. When Leander loses his boat, he loses his usefulness and therefore his self-esteem and thus becomes the tragicomic epitome of humankind’s “inestimable loneliness.” His civic-minded wife, Sarah, like his sister, plays her part in Leander’s temporary fall from grace when she turns the Topaze into a floating gift shop. His sons, Moses and the younger, “ministerial” Coverly, fare no better in their relationships with women in the world beyond St. Botolphs.
Once the brothers leave St. Botolphs (Honora, who controls the family inheritance, demands that Moses leave; Coverly departs because he cannot live at home without his brother), their lives become nomadic and the novel’s plot ever more wayward, serving up several divergent yet oddly parallel and at times intersecting stories rife with chance meetings—a sign on one hand of life’s versatility and romantic possibilities and on the other of its inexplicable randomness.
Moses goes to Washington, gets a government job that is so secret that the narrator cannot discuss it, has an affair with a married woman named Beatrice, gets fired, leaves Washington, goes fishing, comes to the aid of a wealthy man whose gratitude includes hiring Moses, and falls in love with and marries Melissa, the ward of a distant cousin, Justina Wapshot Molesworth Scaddon. Justina is the widow of a five-and-ten-cent store king, caricature of the American nouveau riche, and the novel’s comic version of Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham.
Meanwhile, Coverly has gone to New York, where he does not get a job in the carpet business owned by the husband of yet another wealthy cousin (Coverly fails the days-long psychological testing), works in a department store, goes to night school to become a computer “taper,” and falls in love with and marries his Georgia-born “sandwich shop Venus,” Betsey Macaffery, like Melissa an orphan. (Absent parents, especially fathers, figure prominently in Cheever’s fiction.) Moses’s and Coverly’s marriages are as full of interruptions as Cheever’s narrative. Melissa soon turns aggressively asexual as the couple lives under the vast but confining roof of Justina’s Clear Haven mansion.
Coverly’s marriage begins to deteriorate when Betsey’s efforts to make friends at the planned community of Remsen Park (where Coverly’s work has taken them) all fail. Stylistically and narratively, The Wapshot Chronicle is as fractious as the brothers’ marriages: Straightforward narrative sections alternate with Wapshot journals, lists, letters, phony biographies, Catch-22 logic, and frequent addresses to the reader, including such announcements as “now we come to the unsavory or homosexual part of our tale and any disinterested reader is encouraged to skip.”
The ending of The Wapshot Chronicle proves no less curious than the chapters which precede it. Both couples reunite, and both Moses and Coverly father sons and so fulfill the terms Honora set for establishing trusts in their names, part of which the brothers will use to buy Leander a new boat. Before the boat can be bought, however, or the boys (now men) even return, Leander drowns, but his death becomes the occasion of Cheever’s (and the town’s) celebration of all that Leander represents. At the very end of this novel in which tragedy is undercut by humor and the absurd heightened by pathos, Leander finally gets what neither Sarah nor Honora ever let him have in life—the last word—when quite by accident Coverly finds Leander’s handwritten “Advice to my sons,” which mixes practical advice with liturgical intensity, ending with the words “Trust in the Lord.”
The Wapshot Scandal
First published: 1964
Type of work: Novel
The comic waywardness of The Wapshot Chronicle gives way to the confusions and discontinuities of the contemporary world.
Similarities between The Wapshot Scandal and the work to which it serves as sequel, The Wapshot Chronicle, are readily apparent: the similar cast of characters (though Leander and Sarah are both dead), the use of a framing device (two Christmases at St. Botolphs), and the interweaving of multiple narratives. Honora, still eccentric but now more sympathetic, tries to escape persecution for nonpayment of taxes by traveling to Italy. There she finds herself homesick rather than free and, in the company of an equally lonely Internal Revenue Service agent, returns to St. Botolphs, where she must forfeit the family fortune and soon drinks herself to death (a death that Cheever somehow seems to make funny).
Cheever depicts the lives of Coverly and Betsey in a missile-site housing complex named Talifer and of Moses and Melissa in affluent Proxmire Manor. The differences between the two books, however, are of greater importance than the similarities. In The Wapshot Scandal, the narrative is more discontinuous (so much so that Cheever once described it as “an extraordinarily complex book built upon non sequiturs”). The temporal vagaries of The Wapshot Chronicle here seem more pronounced, resulting in a more mythified realism, a fictive world that is simultaneously now and never. (In this sense it resembles the strangely familiar setting of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which significantly first appeared in The New Yorker in the 1940’s.)
The narrator’s relation to his story has also grown more problematic: It is at once more intimate and more detached. He claims to have personal knowledge of the Wapshots, who, he says, always made him feel like an outsider. Most important, The Wapshot Scandal is a darker and at times blackly humorous novel haunted by death, as the now-vacant Wapshot house is said to be haunted by the ghost of Leander, described here as a man who always looked like a boy but who in his last years “looked like a boy who had seen the Gorgon.” Coverly cannot understand why his father would want to come back, least of all to a decidedly fallen world which seems to promise nothing ahead and offer nothing to which to return.
The modern world has almost entirely displaced the “old river town” of the earlier novel. The potency of this new world is almost entirely destructive, as figured most clearly in Dr. Lemuel Cameron, né Bracciani, director of the Talifer missile site and believer in the inevitability of nuclear war, who is more than willing to dispose of all who do not measure up to his intellectual and physiological standards, including his own son.
With Leander’s death, the moral center of the Wapshot books shifts to Coverly, whose efforts to build a bridge between past and present and to adapt to the rootlessly and ruthlessly modern world without succumbing to it are fraught with difficulties. As his world grows increasingly resistant to his sense of what it should be, and as Betsey, still frustrated in her efforts to make friends with her neighbors, grows ever more distant, Coverly searches for some way to prove himself useful, even illustrious. A computer “taper” misassigned to a public relations department as the result of a computer error, Coverly does succeed in building a bridge of sorts when he runs a computer analysis of John Keats’s poetry. He discovers that in their order of frequency the most commonly used words yield their own poetry—proof, Coverly believes, “that some numerical harmony underlay the composition of the universe.”
Moses is neither so fortunate nor so optimistic. Having given up his study of banking for a job in “a shady brokerage house,” he finds himself morally as well as financially in debt, soon to become both a cynic and a drunk. Moses, however, appears very little, Melissa very much, in this novel. The reader detects a corresponding shift from Betsey’s loneliness to Melissa’s boredom and disappointment. The bland assurances and apparent security of middle-class life in well-to-do Proxmire Manor come up against Melissa’s all-consuming fear of death, which in turn releases her “unruly lusts” and “ruthless greed for pleasure.”
Her problem is not so much sexual as it is spiritual, but when her minister advises her to see a psychiatrist, Melissa takes matters into her own hands and begins an affair with a nineteen-year-old grocery boy, Emile Cranmer. Each sees the other as divine, which is to say as representing the life neither has but for which both yearn. The yearning of Melissa, Emile, and indeed of the novel’s characters is real enough, even if it generally manifests itself in bizarre, ultimately unfulfilling ways—in supermarket purchases or the golden egg which, thanks to Emile, Melissa finds and so wins a trip to Rome.
Rome, however, will not satisfy Melissa, any more than it does Honora. Nor will Emile, who, thanks to one of Cheever’s numerous and entirely self-conscious plot contrivances, ends up in Italy on the block at a sex auction, where Melissa buys him. Last seen at the Supramarketto Americano in Rome, Melissa appears still dissatisfied, still yearning, still buying, still absurd.
At novel’s end, Coverly, evicted from his house, returns to St. Botolphs, where, after Honora’s death and in the company of a nagging Betsey and a randy, drunken Moses, he honors Honora’s request to preside over a Christmas dinner for guests from the Hutchins Institute for the Blind. The sense of ceremony is played against the novel’s second ending, however, in which the narrator claims that he will “never come back” to St. Botolphs and that even if he did there would be “nothing” to return to, “nothing at all.” His words recall Prospero’s speech at the end of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) as spoken by Coverly over Leander’s grave in accord with his father’s request at the end of The Wapshot Chronicle.
Here, however, those words do not so much comfort as disconcert, and in this sense seem strangely linked to the “large, ugly, loaf-shaped and colorless escarpment of granite” around which a housing development has been built that Emile sees earlier in the novel and which Cheever ambivalently describes as “triumphantly obdurate and perverse,” “useless,” and “invincible,” a fit emblem of both the Caliban to which Melissa succumbs and the Ariel to which Coverly aspires.
First published: 1977
Type of work: Novel
A man’s attraction to the natural world and to spiritual light leads him out of the prison of self.
Hailed as “Cheever’s Triumph,” Falconer seemed to surprise many of its reviewers. They were surprised that a writer of short stories could, after three missteps, finally write a “real” novel, especially after the “broken-backed” performance of Bullet Park eight years before. They were also surprised that this “Chekhov of the exurbs,” as one reviewer of The World of Apples (1973) put it, would set his latest fiction in a prison and, more shockingly, write so explicitly about fratricide and homosexuality.
Their surprise points all too well not to any change in Cheever’s writing but instead to the shortcomings on the part of Cheever’s critics and reviewers. The prison setting, as Cheever would point out, functions much as St. Botolphs and fictional suburbs such as Proxmire Manor, Shady Hill, and Bullet Park (as well as Italy and Sutton Place apartment buildings) do as metaphors of the confinement that figures in virtually all of his fiction.
Falconer is not a prison novel in any narrow sense, nor is it about Sing Sing, where Cheever taught in 1971 and 1972. Although it draws on information supplied by his inmates/students, Falconer represents what Cheever called “the sum of my experience.” Just as important, Falconer is not any more “novelistic” than Bullet Park or the Wapshot books, though it is certainly more narrowly and more intensively focused.
Rather, all four employ the same parallel structure, which Cheever also uses in his short stories. Finally, the homosexual theme in Falconer represents more a culmination than a new direction in his work; what is different about Cheever’s handling of homosexuality in Falconer is his forgoing the comedy which previously allowed him to defuse the subject’s personal and thematic explosiveness. Begun during Cheever’s darkest period (not later than 1974), it was completed in a single year-long stretch following his release from Smithers Rehabilitation Clinic and from his addictions to drugs and alcohol.
Falconer differs most from the earlier works in its intensity. Never before, for example, had the close, often strained, occasionally hostile relations between brothers actually ended in death. (“I killed you off in Falconer,” Cheever could jokingly say to Fred a few weeks before the latter’s death on May 30, 1976.) Never before had the contrast between light and dark, spirit and flesh, “the invincible potency of Nature” and one’s deadened sensibility to that potency, been so starkly portrayed. Never before was Cheever quite so clear or quite so determined about the need for spiritual redemption apart from all psychoanalytical explanations and excuses. Neither psychological nor sociological in its import, Falconer is an essentially religious work in which the criminals are “miscreants,” the crime is “fratricide,” and the meaning is “the mystery of imprisonment.”
Falconer Prison is a world apart from affluent Indian Hill, Connecticut, and forty-eight-year-old Ezekiel Farragut’s life there as husband, father, and professor. It is also the epitome of a life that has made addiction to heroin, to methadone, and ultimately to all forms of self-love and self-indulgence its center. Sentenced for up to ten years, Farragut must do more than serve his time; he must learn “to leach self-pity out of his emotional spectrum.” It is a task made difficult not only by Farragut’s self-pitying nature but also by the number of targets he blames for his condition: his narcissistic wife, Marcia; the father who wanted his fetus aborted; the mother who would spare him none of her time; the brother who (Farragut believes) tried to kill him. Yet none of them serves as adequate answer to the question that soon becomes the novel’s refrain, “Farragut, Farragut, why is you an addict?”
The men Farragut meets in Falconer are all grotesques—the sadistic deputy warden, Chisholm; the immensely fat guard, Tiny; the Prussian-looking Marshack; and the “freaks” of F-Block: Chicken Number Two, Bumpo, the Cuckold (with his stores of food with which to bribe the others into listening to his stories), Tennis—each in his own way a distorted mirror image of what Farragut has or will become. Farragut’s homosexual love for the youthful-looking Jody serves as the novel’s turning point. Unlike all the other prisoners, Jody is willing to speak truthfully about himself, to blame himself for who, what, and where he is, and to admit that he has no future. (Jody’s escape from prison is not so much unbelievable as miraculous, proof that Falconer is more religious than realistic, closer to romance than to realism.)
Farragut’s love for Jody (as well as his doubts about that love) leads him out of the prison of self and eventually out of Falconer Prison as well. He takes his second step beyond self when he begins to build a contraband radio (another kind of bridge) to bring news of the riot at Amana Prison (modeled on the Attica riot of September, 1971) to Falconer’s inmates and so, Farragut optimistically and mistakenly believes, to cause them to band together with their “brothers” at “the Wall.” The idea is overly ambitious, bearing about as much relation to the reality of prison life, with each man in his own cell of self, as do Farragut’s sexual fantasies. The torpor of the men, like the unchanging summer weather, proves as indomitable as it does perverse.
The riot is broken; the men stay as they were—torpid, selfish, and lonely—except for a change in the color of their clothing, from gray to a “noncommittal green.” The change in Farragut is far more dramatic. Free of his addiction (though through no effort on his part), he attends to the dying Chicken Number Two and finally recalls the events leading up to his brother Eben’s death. As the reader comes to understand, in killing Eben Farragut he was trying to kill a part of himself. Self-pity has become self-awareness.
It becomes, too, a selflessness that paradoxically—or miraculously—restores Farragut to himself, to the need to take his rightful place in the world. Employing courage and cunning, he undergoes a metaphorical death and rebirth. He puts himself in Chicken Number Two’s body bag and coffin, is carried out of the prison, and makes his escape, having lost his fear of falling “and all his other fears as well.” The ending is (again) unrealistic but nevertheless entirely convincing, a quiet but liturgically intense affirmation of faith: “Rejoice, he thought, rejoice.”
“The Enormous Radio”
First published: 1947 (collected in The Enormous Radio, and Other Stories, 1953)
Type of work: Short story
The Westcotts discover that evil lies within the heart, not out in the world.
What distinguishes “The Enormous Radio” from the Hemingway-like stories of Cheever’s first collection, The Way Some People Live, is the unsettling mixture of realism and fantasy that characterizes the best of his later work. “The Enormous Radio” concerns the Westcotts, who live in a Sutton Place (New York) apartment building and who resemble other young (mid-thirties), college-educated, upwardly mobile couples of the immediately postwar period in all respects but one—their special fondness for classical music.
When their old radio breaks down, Jim buys Irene a new, rather expensive one as a present. Larger and more powerful than its predecessor, the new radio becomes a disturbing presence in the Westcotts’ (especially in Irene’s) life. She does not like its ugly gumwood cabinet, confounding complexities, violent forces, “malevolent green light,” and “mistaken sensitivity to discord.”
This “aggressive intruder” invades and disrupts not only Irene’s world but also that of her neighbors. Irene is appalled, yet fascinated, by what she hears—evidence of her neighbors’ financial, social, and sexual anxieties—but also worried that her neighbors may be able to hear what she and Jim say in the privacy of their own apartment. Irene becomes apprehensive, and this, in turn, leads Jim to express his own long-suppressed financial worries and finally to broadcast his wife’s secret sins: taking her mother’s jewels before the will was probated, cheating her sister, making another woman’s life miserable, and going to an abortionist.
Like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, Irene has entered the dark forest of moral ambiguity and emerged a different person—emerged, that is, as she truly is rather than as she would like to appear. The breakdown of the old radio prepared the way for the breakdown of the Westcotts’ moral facade and for their and the reader’s discovery that the “heart of darkness” lies not without, as Irene wished to believe, but within. The ultimate truth may very well lie somewhere between the Westcotts’ fondness for harmony and the radio’s “mistaken sensitivity to discord.”
“Goodbye, My Brother”
First published: 1951 (collected in The Stories of John Cheever, 1978)
Type of work: Short story
The conflict between two brothers centers on their different visions of the world and reflects the conflict raging within the narrator.
The theme of “Goodbye, My Brother,” a story based on Cheever’s relationship with his older brother, Fred, is one that preoccupied Cheever over the course of his entire career, from the early story “The Brothers” (1937) to the late novel Falconer. The story takes place on Laud’s Head, on the New England coast, where the geographically distant but “close in spirit” Pommeroy clan (a widowed mother, one recently divorced daughter, and three brothers with wives and children) gathers at the family’s summer house, built in the 1920’s. The unnamed narrator, one of the brothers, is thirty-eight, a schoolteacher resigned to a future without much promise who, like the rest of his family (other than the youngest brother), believes that while the Pommeroys may not be distinguished, they are unique.
The late arrival of Lawrence, the youngest child and a lawyer, is the return of the prodigal son, only in reverse. Known variously as Tifty (from the sound his slippers made when he was a child), Croaker, and Little Jesus, he has no enthusiasm—indeed, much contempt—for the activities in which the rest of the family take so much pleasure: drinking, talking, dancing, playing games, and above all, swimming, which during Lawrence’s visit they seem to do more as a way to cleanse themselves of his doleful presence than as a form of physical exercise.
“He could make a grievance out of everything,” the narrator complains about a brother who sees moral as well as physical decay everywhere. Lawrence is not only gloomy, however; he is also at least partly correct in his unwanted judgments: There is indeed a crack in the sea wall, the summer house was built to appear old even though it was not, the family members do delude themselves in various ways, as even the narrator seems to realize if not quite admit.
It is as much Lawrence’s willingness to articulate—or croak—these cracks in the Pommeroy dream as it is his failure to entertain that lyrical vision and sense of ceremony and decorum with which the other Pommeroys are so preoccupied that causes the narrator to strike him on the head. The ever-complaining and ever-departing, ever-disappointed Lawrence deludes himself in thinking that he has important things to do—things which his frivolous and now murderous family have kept him from doing.
Lawrence, too, appears to be marked for failure, branded like Cain by the Cain-like brother who has just tried to kill him.
The ending of the story compounds the ambiguity, for the richness of lyrical phrase and mythic allusion creates a sense of affirmation and illusion. The doubleness is crucial to Cheever’s effect and to the reader’s perception that the external conflict between the two brothers and their very different visions reflects the internal conflict raging within the narrator and, one suspects, within the author as well.
“The Country Husband”
First published: 1954 (collected in The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, and Other Stories, 1958)
Type of work: Short story
The comic hero takes a rather absurd route in an effort to reclaim his self-esteem and rightful place in the world.
“The Country Husband” typifies Cheever’s use of humor to underscore the absurd ways in which people, like the hero Francis Weed, attempt to overcome a sense of having suddenly become displaced, socially or sexually. An emergency airplane landing in a field while returning from a business trip precipitates Weed’s crisis; he will soon run the risk of becoming as unwanted as his namesake in his suburban Garden of Eden, Shady Hill. Once returned, he can find no audience for his tale of near-extinction: His children turn the house into a battlefield, and his wife, Julia, prepares, serves, and eats the family dinner while pretending to ignore the chaos.
Escaping into his back yard, Weed finds not the peace and understanding he craves but instead the proof of Shady Hill’s essential triviality: old Mr. Nixon defending his bird feeder from the squirrels, while another neighbor, Donald Goslin, plays (as he does every night) the “Moonlight Sonata” in “an outpouring of tearful petulance, lonesomeness, and self-pity—of everything it was [Ludwig van] Beethoven’s greatness not to know.”
Curiously, Weed’s awareness of the self-pity of others does not prevent him from succumbing to it himself as he falls madly in love with the teenage baby-sitter whose very name—Anne Murchison—adds to the story’s comic absurdity, as it effectively undermines Weed’s exalted image of her and his mistaken belief in her power to restore him to his rightful place in the world. As Weed’s romantic fantasy grows ever more adolescent, his wife grows more perturbed and more absurd. His cutting remark to one of the community’s most important women costs Julia a party invitation, thus putting her closer to that “most natural dread of chaos and loneliness,” against which her only weapon is a hyperactive social schedule.
Julia (ignorant of Weed’s love for Anne) claims that he has been subconsciously expressing his hatred for her by leaving his dirty underwear around the house. Weed does eventually regain his place, if not his self-esteem. On the advice of a psychiatrist, he takes up woodworking and in this way channels his desires into a harmless pursuit, not unlike Donald Goslin’s piano playing. The ending—“Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains”—is clearly lyrical but perhaps duplicitously so, evoking both transcendental affirmation and ironic doubt.
“The Death of Justina”
First published: 1960 (collected in The Stories of John Cheever, 1978)
Type of work: Short story
Adversity becomes absurdity as Moses discovers the fear of death upon which “the good life” is founded.
In “The Death of Justina” it is not merely a brush with death (as in “The Country Husband”) but death itself that serves as catalyst not only for a change in the narrator-protagonist’s life but for Cheever’s comic genius as well. “So help me God it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and what I expect as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one’s purest memories and ambitions”; the speaker is a version of the figure Cheever imagined in 1959—the man in a quagmire looking up at a tear in the sky—but one whose predicament has somehow become funnier as well as more dire.
If, as the narrator would like to believe, fiction is art, and if art is the triumph over chaos brought about by the exercise of choice, then how is the writer or authorial narrator to continue to effect that triumph in a world in which change occurs too rapidly and in which the basis for making aesthetic as well as moral choices appears to have disappeared? How is one to build Coverly Wapshot’s bridge between “memories and ambitions”?
Aside from the setting (Proxmire Manor) and names (Moses and Justina), “The Death of Justina” exists independently of The Wapshot Scandal in all but two important respects, structure and theme, and specifically in Moses’s wanting to know how, in the world’s most prosperous land, there can be so many disappointed people. “The Death of Justina” provides a possible answer. When his wife’s cousin dies in his home, Moses suddenly learns that his neighborhood and the suburban good life it represents are not zoned for death. As the mayor explains, “The importance of zoning just can’t be overestimated,” and Moses will simply have to wait a few days or weeks until an exemption can be issued and the body can be legally disposed of. When Moses threatens to bury the corpse in his back yard, the mayor—acting illegally—relents.
Matters do not end there, however, for that night Moses has a dream in which a thousand grotesquely garbed shoppers, desexed and penitential, wander around a brilliantly lit supermarket, its windows darkened, the contents of all packages unknown. At the checkout counter, large men tear open the packages, express their disgust, and then push the humiliated shoppers out the door into a sea of tormented souls.
This blackly humorous updating of Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320) manages to create a certain sympathy for those it satirizes and for modern humans’ mistaken efforts to realize their deepest longings. Burying Justina in a cemetery which, like a dump, lies on the town’s outskirts leads Moses to ask, “How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?” Apparently, Moses will. Told by his boss to rewrite a commercial for a product called Elixircol, he first composes a parody, “Only Elixircol can save you.” Then, when threatened with a kind of death—being fired—he copies out the Twenty-third Psalm. In the nightmare world of the supermarket of the soul, the words that Moses chooses, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” sound both sane and strangely convincing.
First published: 1964 (collected in The Stories of John Cheever, 1978)
Type of work: Short story
An afternoon swim becomes a psychologically powerful fable of the Fall and of human expulsion from a modern Garden of Eden.
The comic absurdity and artful randomness of “The Death of Justina” differ sharply from the dark ambiguity and the tight, almost inexorable structure of “The Swimmer,” another Cheever story concerning modern people’s efforts to guard themselves from every painful memory and every proof of their own mortality. “The Swimmer” begins on a summer day around the Westerhazys’ pool when the youthful Neddy Merrill decides to “enlarge and celebrate” the day’s beauty and his own good fortune—including his wife and “four beautiful daughters”—by swimming home to Bullet Park, eight miles (sixteen pools) away. Thinking of himself as a legendary figure, a pilgrim, an explorer, “a man with a destiny,” Neddy seems childlike, even comically childish, yet nevertheless preferable to the others who sit around the pool complaining of having drunk too much the night before.
The first half of the story moves along rapidly from their chronic plaint to Neddy’s chosen plan and the swimming of nine pools in one hour. Neddy’s odyssey is not without some difficulties—a thorny hedge, gravel that cuts the feet, drinks proffered and politely drunk, a brief storm, a sudden coolness in the air, a drained pool, and an overgrown yard. There is also a small plane “circling around and around and around in the sky with something like the glee of a child in a swing,” which, twice noticed, delights Neddy but also distracts him and perhaps serves to remind the reader of not only the joy but also the futility of Neddy’s act, the inexorable closure of his destiny.
In the story’s first half, the disappointments and impediments are generally minor and cause neither Neddy nor the reader much inconvenience or delay. In the second half, however, the obstacles increase, and the pace of both the swim and the reading slackens. It takes a page, for example, to cross the divided highway where Neddy suddenly seems vulnerable, even pitiful, unable to turn back and unsure when this bit of afternoon play turned serious. As the pace slackens, the evidence mounts that Neddy’s ability to repress all unpleasantness has “damaged his sense of truth” until inevitably, yet inexplicably, Neddy finally reaches the empty house that was once his home.
For the reader, Neddy’s defeat is doubly troubling. Like Neddy, the reader must confront the emptiness at journey’s end and all that this ironic reversal of Odysseus’s homecoming suggests about Neddy and more generally about the precariousness of American upper-middle-class life. The reader must also face the fact that a story that began as more or less conventional, certainly comic, realism has transmogrified into a dark fantasy in which it is not only the day that has gone by but the seasons, indeed the years of a man’s life, leaving him, like the narrator at the end of The Wapshot Scandal, with “nothing, nothing at all.” While the specific cause of Neddy’s downfall may be financial (as well as psychological), the power of this story (like Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” which it resembles in certain ways) derives from some much deeper, less specific source whose tenor, as Edgar Allan Poe said of his own gothic tales, is “not of Germany”—or of the suburbs—but “of the soul.”