Last Updated on August 23, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3678
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...
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