John Cheever

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John Cheever Short Fiction Analysis

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John Cheever has been called both “the Chekhov of the exurbs” and “Ovid in Ossining”—which suggests both the variety and the complexity of the man and his fiction. Accused by some of being a literary lightweight—a writer merely of short stories and an apologist for middle-class life—he has been more often, and more justly, praised as a master chronicler of a way of life that he both celebrates and satirizes in stories that seem at once conventional and innovative, realistic and fantastic. His stories read effortlessly, yet their seeming simplicity masks a complexity that deserves and repays close attention. The line “The light from the cottage, shining into the fog, gave the illusion of substance, and it seems as if I might stumble on a beam of light,” for example, only appears simple and straightforward. It begins with a conventional image, light penetrating darkness, thus illuminating the way to truth, but the next five words undermine the “illusion” first by calling attention to it, then by paradoxically literalizing the metaphor, making this substantive light a stumbling block rather than a source of spiritual and/or philosophical truth.

“A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel”

Nothing in Cheever’s fiction of stark contrasts—light and dark, male and female, city and country—ever exists independent of its opposite. His stories proceed incrementally and contrapuntally, at times in curiously indirect ways. In “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel,” for example, Cheever’s narrator banishes seven kinds of characters and situations from his fiction, including alcoholics, homosexuals, and “scornful descriptions of American landscapes.” However, not only did his next novel, as well as much of the rest of his fiction, include all three, but also the very act of listing them in this “miscellany” confirms their power, giving them a prominence that far outweighs their hypothetical banishment from any later work. This play of voices and positions within individual works also exists between stories.

The same narrative situations will appear in various Cheever stories, handled comically in some, tragically in others. In effect, the stories offer a series of brilliant variations on a number of basic, almost obsessive themes, of which the most general and the most recurrent as well as the most important is the essential conflict between his characters’ spiritual longings and social and psychological (especially sexual) nature. “What I wanted to do,” one of his narrator-protagonists says, is “to grant my dreams, in so incoherent a world, their legitimacy,” “to celebrate,” as another claims, “a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream.” Their longings are tempered not only by the incoherence of their world but also by a doubt concerning whether what they long for actually exists or is rather only an illusion conjured out of nothing more substantial than their own ardent hopes for something or some place or someone other than who, what, and where they presently are. Even when expressed in the most ludicrous terms possible, the characters’ longings seem just as profound as they are ridiculous, as in the case of “Artemis the Honest Well Digger” searching “for a girl as pure and fresh as the girl on the oleomargarine package.” The line seems both to affirm and to qualify the yearning of a character who may confuse kitsch with Kant, advertising copy with lyrical longings, but who nevertheless seems as much a holy fool as a deluded consumer.

Whether treated comically or tragically, Cheever’s characters share a number of traits. Most are male, married, and white-collar workers. All—despite their Sutton Place apartments or,...

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more often, comfortable homes in affluent Westchester communities—feel confused, dispossessed, lost; they all seem to be what the characters in Cheever’s Italian stories actually are: expatriates and exiles. Physical ailments are rare, emotional ones epidemic. Instead of disease, there is the “dis-ease” of “spiritual nomadism.” They are as restless as any of Cheever’s most wayward plots and in need of “building a bridge” between the events of their lives as well as between those lives and their longings. Trapped in routines as restricting as any prison cell and often in marriages that seem little more than sexual battlefields, where even the hair curlers appear “bellicose,” his characters appear poised between escaping into the past in a futile effort to repeat what they believe they have lost and aspiring to a lyrical future that can be affirmed, even “sung,” though never quite attained. Even the latter can be dangerous. “Dominated by anticipation” (a number of Cheever’s characters hope excessively), they are locked in a state of perpetual adolescence, unwilling to grow up, take responsibility, and face death in any form. Although their world may lie spread out like a bewildering and stupendous dream, they find it nevertheless confining, inhospitable, even haunted by fears of emotional and economic insecurity and a sense of personal inadequacy and inconsequentiality, their sole inheritance, it seems, from the many fathers who figure so prominently in the stories, often by virtue of their absence from the lives of their now middle-aged sons. Adrift in an incoherent world and alone in the midst of suburbs zoned for felicity, they suffer frequent blows to their already fragile sense of self-esteem, seeing through yet wanting the protection of the veneer of social decorum and ceremoniousness that is the outward and visible sign of American middle-class aspiration and which Cheever’s characters do not so much court as covet.

“The Enormous Radio”

The thinness of that veneer is especially apparent in “The Enormous Radio,” a work that shows little trace of the Hemingway style that marks many of Cheever’s earlier stories. The story begins realistically enough. Jim and Irene Westcott, in their mid-thirties, are an average couple in all respects but one: their above-average interest in classical music (and, one assumes, in the harmony and decorum that such music represents). When their old radio breaks down, Jim generously buys an expensive new one to which Irene takes an instant dislike. Like their interest in music, which they indulge as if a secret but harmless vice, this small disruption in their harmonious married life seems a minor affair, at least at first. The radio, however, appearing “like an aggressive intruder,” shedding a “malevolent green light,” and possessing a “mistaken sensitivity to discord,” soon becomes a divisive, even diabolical presence, but the evil in this story, as in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” to which it has often been compared, comes from within the characters, not from without (the radio). When the radio begins to broadcast the Westcotts’ neighbors’ quarrels, lusts, fears, and crimes, Irene becomes dismayed, perversely entertained, and finally apprehensive; if she can eavesdrop on her neighbors’ most intimate conversations, she thinks that perhaps they can listen in on hers. Hearing their tales of woe, she demands that her husband affirm their happiness. Far from easing her apprehensiveness, his words only exacerbate it as he first voices his own previously well-guarded frustrations over money, job prospects, and growing old, and as he eventually exposes his wife’s own evil nature. As frustration explodes into accusation, the illusion of marital happiness that the Westcotts had so carefully cultivated shatters. As with so many Cheever stories, “The Enormous Radio” has its origin in biographical fact: While writing in the basement of a Sutton Place apartment house, Cheever would hear the elevator going up and down and would imagine that the wires could carry his neighbors’ conversations down to him.

“Goodbye, My Brother”

“Goodbye, My Brother” derives from another and far more pervasive biographical fact, Cheever’s relationship with his elder brother, Fred, the father figure to whom he developed too close an attachment. Fred turned to business and for a time supported Cheever’s writing but, like Cheever, eventually became an alcoholic. Beginning with “The Brothers” and culminating in the fratricide in Falconer, relations between brothers figure nearly as prominently in Cheever’s fiction as those between spouses. Just as stories such as “The Enormous Radio” are not simply about marital spats, “Goodbye, My Brother” is not just about sibling rivalry. Just as the relationship between Irene and the malevolent radio is actually about a condition within the marriage and more especially within Irene herself, the external relationship between the story’s narrator and his brother Lawrence is actually about the narrator’s own Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality—in psychological terms, a matter of split personality and projection. The narrator objectifies in Lawrence his own fears, frustrations, and self-loathing. Lawrence and the narrator are two of the Pommeroys who have gathered on Laud’s Head in August for their annual family vacation. Like his sister, just back after her divorce, and their widowed mother, who drinks too much while trying to keep up the family’s upper-crust pretensions, the narrator needs these few weeks of respite from the grind of his dead-end teaching job. Together they swim, play cards and tennis, drink, and go to costume dances, where in an almost Jungian freak of chance, all the men come dressed as football players and all the women as brides, as eloquent a statement of the sadness of their blighted but still aspiring lives as one can imagine. Lawrence partakes in none of it. A lawyer moving from one city and job to another, he is the only family member with prospects and the only one unable to enjoy or even tolerate the illusion of happiness that the family seeks to maintain. He is also the only one willing, indeed eager, to detect the flaws and fakery in the Pommeroys’ summer home, its protective sea wall, and its equally protective forms of play. Gloomy and morose as well as critical, Lawrence is, to borrow the title of another Cheever story, the worm in the Pommeroy apple. He is the messenger bearing the bad news, whom the narrator nearly kills with a blow to the head as the two walk along the beach. He strikes not only to free himself from his brother’s morbid presence but also to extirpate the Lawrence side of his own divided self: Cain and Abel, murderer and good Samaritan. Once Lawrence and his sickly looking wife and daughter leave, the narrator turns to the purifying water and the triumphant vision of his mythically named wife and sister, Helen and Diana, rising naked from the sea. The story closes on a lyrically charged note that seems both to affirm all that the Pommeroys have sought and, by virtue of the degree of lyrical intensity, to accentuate the gap between that vision and Lawrence’s more factual and pessimistic point of view.

“O Youth and Beauty”

“O Youth and Beauty” makes explicit what virtually all Cheever’s stories imply, the end of youth’s promise, of that hopeful vision that the ending of “Goodbye, My Brother” sought to affirm. Thus it seems ironically apt that “O Youth and Beauty” should begin with a long (two-hundred-word) Whitmanesque sentence, which, in addition to setting the scene and establishing the narrative situation, subtly evokes that Transcendental vision that Walt Whitman both espoused and, in his distinctive poetic style, sought to embody. Beginning “At the tag end of nearly every long, large Saturday night party in the suburb of Shady Hill,” it proceeds through a series of long anaphoric subordinate clauses beginning with the word “when” and ending with “then Trace Bearden would begin to chide Cash Bentley about his age and thinning hair.” The reader is thus introduced to what, for the partygoers, has already become something of a suburban ritual: the perfectly named Cash Bentley’s hurdling of the furniture as a way of warding off death and reliving the athletic triumphs of the youth that he refuses to relinquish. When Cash, now forty, breaks his leg, the intimations of mortality begin to multiply in his morbid mind. Although he may run his race alone, and although the Lawrentian gloominess that comes in the wake of the accident may make him increasingly isolated from his neighbors and friends, Cash is not at all unique, and his fears are extreme but nevertheless representative of a fear that pervades the entire community and that evidences itself in his wife’s trying to appear younger and slimmer than she is and her “cutting out of the current copy of Life those scenes of mayhem, disaster, and violent death that she felt might corrupt her children.” It is rather ironic that a moment later she should accidentally kill her husband in their own living room with the starter’s pistol, as he attempts to recapture the past glories of all those other late Saturday night races against time and self in an attempt always, already doomed, to recapture the past glories of his days as a young track star. The track is in fact an apt symbol for Cash’s circular life, in which, instead of progress, one finds only the horror of Nietzschean eternal recurrence.

“The Five-Forty-Eight”

Upon first reading, “The Five-Forty-Eight” seems to have little in common with the blackly humorous “O Youth and Beauty.” A disturbed woman, Miss Dent, follows Blake, whose secretary she had been for three weeks and whose lover she was for one night, some six months earlier. She trails him from his office building to his commuter train. Threatening to shoot him, she gets off at his stop and forces him to kneel and rub his face in the dirt for having seduced and abandoned her six months earlier. One of Cheever’s least likable characters, Blake gets what he deserves. Having chosen Miss Dent as he has chosen his other women (including, it seems, his wife) “for their lack of self-esteem,” he not only had her fired the day after they made love but also took the afternoon off. Miss Dent fares considerably better, for in choosing not to kill Blake she discovers “some kindness, some saneness” in herself that she believes she can put to use. Blake too undergoes a change insofar as he experiences regret for the first time and comes to understand his own vulnerability, which he has heretofore managed to safeguard by means of his “protective” routines and scrupulous observance of Shady Hill’s sumptuary laws. Whether these changes will be lasting remains unclear; he is last seen picking himself up, cleaning himself off, and walking home, alone.

“The Five-Forty-Eight” is quite literally one of Cheever’s darkest stories; only the dimmest of lights and the faintest of hopes shine at its end. Although it too ends at night, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” is one of Cheever’s brightest and most cheerful works, full of the spiritual phototropism so important in Falconer, the novel that Newsweek hailed as “Cheever’s Triumph.” The housebreaker is thirty-six-year-old Johnny Hake, kindly and comical, who suddenly finds himself out of work, at risk of losing his house, his circle of friends, and the last shreds of his self-esteem. Desperate for cash, he steals nine hundred dollars from a neighbor, a theft that transforms his vision of the world. Suddenly, he begins to see evil everywhere and evidence that everyone can see him for what he now is. The “moral bottom” drops out of his world but in decidedly comic fashion: Even a birthday gift from his children—an extension ladder—becomes an acknowledgment of his wrong-doing (and nearly cause for divorce). Chance, however, saves Johnny. Walking to his next victim’s house, he feels a few drops of rain fall on his head and awakens from his ludicrous nightmare, his vision of the world restored. Opting for life’s simple pleasures (he is after all still unemployed), he returns home and has a pleasant dream in which he is seventeen years old. Johnny cannot get his youth back, but he does get his job (and he does return the money he has stolen). The happy endings proliferate as the story slips the yoke of realism and romps in the magical realm of pure fairy tale, where, as Cheever puts it far more sardonically in his third novel, Bullet Park (1969), everything is “wonderful wonderful wonderful wonderful.”

“The Country Husband”

Comic exaggeration and hyperbolically happy endings characterize many of the stories of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. In “The Hosebreaker of Shady Hill,” it is losing his job that starts Johnny Hake on his comical crime spree; in “The Country Husband,” it is nearly losing his life that sends Francis Weed on an ever more absurdly comical quest for love and understanding. Weed has his brush with death when his plane is forced to make an emergency landing in a field outside Philadelphia. The danger over, his vulnerability (like Blake’s) and mortality (like Cash Bentley’s) established, the real damage begins when Weed can find no one to lend a sympathetic ear—not his friend, Trace Bearden, on the commuter train, not even his wife, Julia (too busy putting dinner on the table), or his children (the youngest are fighting and the oldest is reading True Romance). With his very own True Adventure still untold, Weed goes outside, where he hears a neighbor playing “Moonlight Sonata,” rubato, “like an outpouring of tearful petulance, lonesomeness, and self-pity—of everything it was Beethoven’s greatness not to know,” and everything it will now be Weed’s comic misfortune to experience as he embarks upon his own True Romance with the rather unromantically named Anne Murchison, his children’s new teenage baby-sitter.

Playing the part of a lovesick adolescent, the middle-aged Weed acts out his midlife crisis and in doing so jeopardizes his family’s social standing and his marriage. The consequences are potentially serious, as are the various characters’ fears and troubles (Anne’s alcoholic father, Julia’s “natural fear of chaos and loneliness,” which leads to her obsessive partygoing). What is humorous is Cheever’s handling of these fears in a story in which solecisms are slapstick, downfalls are pratfalls, and pariahs turn out to be weeds in Cheever’s suburban Garden of Eden. When Francis finally decides to overcome his Emersonian self-reliance, to confide in and seek the help of a psychiatrist (who will do what neither friends nor family have thus far been willing to do—that is, listen), the first words Weed tearfully blurts out are, “I’m in love, Dr. Harzog.” Since “The Country Husband” is a comedy, Weed is cured of his “dis-ease” and able to channel his desires into more socially acceptable ways (conjugal love and, humorously enough, woodworking). The story ends with a typically Cheeveresque affirmation of Fitzgerald-like romantic possibilities, no less apparent in Shady Hill than in the Great Gatsby’s (1925) West Egg. It is an affirmation, however, tempered once again by the tenuousness of the characters’ situation in a “village that hangs, morally and economically, from a thread.”

“The Death of Justina”

The thread will break—although still comically—in “The Death of Justina.” Here, the focus is double, on the parallel plights of the authorial narrator, a fiction writer, and the protagonist-narrator of the story that he writes (like “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” in oral style), also a writer (of advertising copy). Briefly stated, their shared predicament is this: how (for the one) to write about and (for the other) to live in a world that seems to grow increasingly chaotic and preposterous. As the authorial narrator explains, “Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing.” The authorial narrator then offers Moses’ account of the death of his wife’s cousin Justina as “one example of chaos.” Ordered by his doctor to stop smoking and drinking and by his boss to write copy for a product called Elixircol (something of a cross between Geritol and the Fountain of Youth), Moses suddenly finds himself at a complete loss when he tries to arrange for Justina’s funeral, for Justina has died in his house and his house is an area of Proxmire Manor not zoned for death. No doctor will issue a death certificate, and the mayor refuses to sign an exemption until a quorum of the village council is available, but when Moses threatens to bury Justina in his yard, the mayor relents. Victorious but still shaken, Moses that night has a strange dream set in a vast supermarket where the shoppers stock their carts with unlabeled, shapeless packages, which are then, much to their shame, torn open at the checkout counters by brutish men who first ridicule the selections and then push the shoppers out the doors into what sounds much like Dante’s inferno. The scene is amusing but, like the ludicrously comical scenes in Franz Kafka’s works, also unsettling. The story does not affirm the shoppers any more than it does the village council that drew up the zoning laws, but it does understand what compels them even as it sympathetically satirizes the inadequacy of their means. As Moses points out, “How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?”

“The Brigadier and the Golf Widow”

“The Brigadier and the Golf Widow” makes a similar point in a similar way. Here too, the authorial narrator is perplexed, wondering what the nineteenth century writers Charles Dickens, Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, and William Makepeace Thackeray would have made of a fallout shelter (bizarrely decorated and disguised with gnomes, plaster ducks, and a birdbath). He also understands, however, that fallout shelters are as much a part of his mid-twentieth century landscape as are trees and shrubbery. The shelter in question belongs to Charlie Pastern, the country club general who spends his time calling loudly for nuclear attacks on any and all of his nation’s enemies. His world begins to unravel when, by chance, he begins an affair with a neighbor whose own fears and insecurity lead her first to promiscuity and then to demanding the key to the Pasterns’ shelter (a key that the local bishop also covets). Apparently the last words of “The Death of Justina,” taken verbatim from the Twenty-third Psalm, about walking through the shadow of the valley of death and fearing no evil, no longer apply.

For all the good cheer, hearty advice, biblical quotations, comical predicaments, and lyrical affirmations, there lies at the center of Cheever’s fiction the fear of insufficiency and inadequacy—of shelters that will not protect, marriages that will not endure, jobs that will be lost, threads that will not hold.

“The Swimmer”

That the thread does not hold in “The Swimmer,” Cheever’s most painstakingly crafted and horrific work, is especially odd, for the story begins as comedy, a lighthearted satire, involving a group of suburban couples sitting around the Westerhazys’ pool on a beautiful midsummer Sunday afternoon talking about what and how much they drank the night before. Suddenly Neddy Merrill, yet another of Cheever’s middle-aged but youthfully named protagonists, decides to swim home pool to pool. More than a prank, it is for him a celebration of the fineness of the day, a voyage of discovery, a testament to life’s romantic possibilities. Neddy’s swim will cover eight miles, sixteen pools, in only ten pages (as printed in The Stories of John Cheever). Although he encounters some delays and obstacles—drinks graciously offered and politely, even ceremoniously, drunk, a thorny hedge to be gotten over, gravel underfoot—Neddy completes nearly half the journey in only two pages (pages 3-4; pages 1-2 are purely preparatory). The story and its reader move as confidently and rapidly as Neddy, but then there are a few interruptions: a brief rain shower that forces Neddy to seek shelter, a dry pool at one house, and a for-sale sign inexplicably posted at another. Midway through both journey and story, the point of view suddenly and briefly veers away from Neddy, who now looks pitifully exposed and foolishly stranded as he attempts to cross a divided highway. His strength and confidence ebbing, he seems unprepared for whatever lies ahead yet unable to turn back. Like the reader, he is unsure when his little joke turned so deadly serious. At the one public pool on his itinerary, he is assaulted by crowds, shrill sounds, and harsh odors. After being very nearly stalled for two pages, the pace quickens ever so slightly but only to leave Neddy still weaker and more disoriented. Each “breach in the succession” exposes Neddy’s inability to bridge the widening gap between his vision of the world and his actual place in it. He is painfully rebuffed by those he had previously been powerful enough to mistreat—a former mistress, a socially inferior couple whose invitations he and his wife routinely discarded. The apparent cause of Neddy’s downfall begins to become clear to the reader only as it begins to become clear to Neddy—a sudden and major financial reversal—but Neddy’s situation cannot be attributed to merely economic factors, nor is it susceptible to purely rational analysis. Somewhere along Neddy’s and the reader’s way, everything has changed: The passing of hours becomes the passage of whole seasons, perhaps even years, as realism gives way to fantasy, humor to horror as the swimmer sees his whole life pass before him in a sea of repressed memories. Somehow Neddy has woken into his own worst dream. Looking into his empty house, he comes face to face with the insecurity that nearly all Cheever’s characters fear and the inadequacy that they all feel.

The stories (and novels) that Cheever wrote during the last two decades of his life grew increasingly and innovatively disparate in structure. “The Jewels of the Cabots,” for example, or “The President of the Argentine” matches the intensifying disunity of the author’s personal life. Against this narrative waywardness, however, Cheever continued to offer and even to extend an affirmation of the world and his protagonists’ place in it in a lyrically charged prose at once serene and expansive (“The World of Apples,” Falconer). In other words, he continued to do during these last two decades what he had been doing so well for the previous three: writing a fiction of celebration and incoherence.


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