Introduction

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Cheever, John 1912–

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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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606

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 suspense novel enriched with innumerable striking passages. (p. 99)

[Farragut] is a husband and a father, but his wife is a stereotyped villainess who would be most at home in a New Yorker cartoon, and his son appears to be non-existent. Cheever works up a few 'memories' of wife and son but they are singularly unconvincing, as if his heart were not in it—as if the labors of conventional novelizing had grown tedious, and poetry of a whimsical, surreal nature had become more attractive. We are told too that Farragut has killed his brother Eben, an unpleasant man whom he has disliked for most of his life, but the killing is presented in a quick, truncated scene; like most physical action in Falconer it is hastily glossed over. What clearly appeals to Cheever is the pure action of writing itself and Falconer is most successful when there is nothing going on except bodiless reverie…. [These] observations, lovely as they are, might belong to anyone; one feels that they are Cheever's and not his protagonist's.

Cheever is by nature a short story writer and while in his finest short stories (like "The Swimmer" and "The Enormous Radio") a single surreal image is vividly developed, and draws that forward-motion called 'plot' irresistibly along with it, his novels flounder under the weight of too many capricious, inspired, zany images. (pp. 99-100)

A certain visionary outrageousness in Cheever's art has often resulted in highly successful short stories, and there are certainly a number of powerful passages in Falconer, as in Bullet Park and the Wapshot novels; but in general...

(The entire section contains 3393 words.)

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