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.)
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
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, as inBullet Park and the Wapshot novels; but in general the whimsical impulse undercuts and to some extent damages the more serious intentions of the works. This much-praised novel is finally quite disappointing: its victories are far too easy, its transcendence of genuine pain and misery is glib, even crude. But one should read Cheever for the richness of his observations, perhaps, rejoicing in his capacity to see and to feel and to value. Smallness and even banality are not to be rejected in the 'prison' of earthly existence…. (pp. 100-01)
Joyce Carol Oates, "An Airy Insubstantial World," in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1977 by The Ontario Review), Fall-Winter, 1977–78, pp. 99-101.
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 as too ferocious for psychological interpretation, rooted instead in some primal biological antagonism or some malevolent caprice of the universe.
Can the author of all this domestic infelicity really believe, as he says in his Preface [to The Stories of John Cheever], that the constants he looks for are "a love of light and a determination to trace some moral chain of being"? We have to suppose that he simply does not recognize his own saturnine bent of mind, his speedy susceptibility to the faintest intimations of discord, and to the sorrows of gin. (pp. 16-17)
Perhaps it is to make amends to himself and us for the disproportion in his focus that so many of Cheever's stories launch into lyrical transports when the human outlook is particularly grim….
Despite the rhapsodic thrill of the language, it seems to me one of the least wholesome elements in Cheever's fiction that he so often juxtaposes the pleasing prospect of nature and the disagreeable one of men and women, and lurches so readily from cynicism to exaltation. He does much better when he comes to terms with the blackness in himself, which may be why Falconer, for all the abrasiveness of its cat slaughters and brutalities among prisoners, is a strong and plausible novel….
No unhappy ending can stop Cheever's spirits from soaring, however, once Italy enters the scene…. In 1956 Cheever spent a year in Italy, and what an infusion of red blood and charm the change in setting gives to his writing! In the Italian stories—e.g. "The Bella Lingua" and "The Duchess"—the swimming pools and adulteries of Shady Hill are far behind him and Cheever turns into the most likeable of writers. He leans back, develops perspective, takes a robust interest in other people's lives….
In Italy Cheever grows more springy, outgoing and natural, and the melancholy fog of "pain and sweetness" lifts from his fiction. His lens to the world seems to be set at a more secure point, midway between triumph and disappointment. What an accomplishment it would have been if he could have added that comfortable frame of mind to the rest of his clear and elegant prose. (p. 17)
Isa Kapp, "The Cheerless World of John Cheever," in The New Leader (© 1978 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), September 11, 1978, pp. 16-17.
[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 gathering sense of suspense. Ultimately, which way will the scales tip?
What determines the way an individual story will tip, at least, is the writing style. Some of these stories are written from outside. They're summarized, really, in a cool, often ironic tone of voice: names, dates, events—facts….
But the stories written from inside—where events sometimes equally bleak are alchemized by the peculiarly sunny vision of the narrator—carry a kind of luminous quality that transcends the plot. Men in these stories have an endearing habit of viewing the commonplace as something mythical, and of endlessly forgiving the world its banality and frustrations….
The fact that there is a comic note in some characters' voices does not lessen their ability to move us. There may be something ridiculous about their positions—they may live in a district where death is against the zoning laws, they may wear rayon pajama tops printed with pictures of the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria—but that in no way lightens their grief at the passage of time, or their bewilderment in the face of a centrifugal force that seems to be throwing them "further and further away from one's purest memories and ambitions." (p. 46)
In his preface, Cheever remarks upon the fact that these stories, like many of his heroes, have been affected by the passage of time…. But in Cheever's stories, as in no others that come to mind, this sense of datedness works to their advantage. It gives an added poignancy to already poignant characters; it makes even more surreal the bewildering scenery of their lives…. (pp. 46-7)
John Cheever is a magnificent storyteller, and this is a dazzling and powerful book. (p. 47)
Anne Tyler, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 4, 1978.
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 farms….
Like so many of his nineteenth-century predecessors, Cheever is authoritative in his portrayal of the shabby genteel, of those who must resort to desperate contrivances to keep up appearances, to say nothing of advancing themselves in the world.
He is also wonderfully sensitive to the rhythms of family life within this class …; to the asperities of fraternal relationships …; to the decorum to be maintained in one's dealing with in-laws and, by extension, with servants, babysitters, hired hands, and local inhabitants of a different class …; and to the behavior of children disillusioned with their parents…. He catches not only the chronic irritations and disappointments but also the sudden upwelling of great tenderness and compassion.
Of course, Cheever, for all his fascination with manners, has never been primarily a documentary writer. His response to experience is essentially that of an old-fashioned lyric poet…. While one might question Cheever's profundity as a moralist, there can be no doubt about his preoccupation with—and celebration of—the shifting powers of light. His stories are bathed in light, flooded with it; often his characters appear slightly drunk with it, their senses reeling.
Light seems to be associated with a blessing, with a tender maternal smile fleetingly experienced, with all that is clean, tender, and guiltless, with the barely glimpsed immanence of God within His creation. At times Cheever appears to soar like Shelley's skylark toward the source of light, a belated romantic beating his luminous wings in the void.
But while the lyric impulse sometimes leads him into a slight (and often endearing) silliness—"The light was like a blow, and the air smelled as if many wonderful girls had just wandered across the lawn"—he is for the most part a precisionist of the senses. Though his imagery of light has the strongest retinal impact, Cheever's evocation of color and texture and smell is also vivid and persistent. He shares with two very different writers, Lawrence and Faulkner, an extraordinary ability to fix the sensory quality of a particular moment, a particular place, and to make it function not as embellishment but as an essential element in the lives and moods of his characters. (p. 3)
Cheever is a writer whose faults have an unusually close connection to his strengths. The imaginative identification with the upper-middle class which allows him to depict their mores and dilemmas with such vivacity entails a narrowness of social range and a sentimental snobbery which can get the best of him when his guard is down. (pp. 3-4)
The most serious embarrassments occur when he attempts an identification with a really alien figure…. His condescension to these characters is well meant, full of good will, and hard to swallow.
The snobbery is fairly innocent as snobberies go, attaching itself mostly to well-bred or even aristocratic ladies and causing little damage beyond a maudlin blurring of Cheever's usually sharp vision….
Cheever's role as narrator is always obtrusive. He has, of course, never had any truck with the notion—once a dogma among certain academic critics—that an author should keep himself as invisible as possible, that he should show rather than tell. Cheever-as-narrator is regularly on stage, rejoicing in his own performance, commenting upon—often chatting about—his characters, dispatching them on missions, granting them reprieves or firmly settling their hash. At his most effective he can tell us things about a character with such authority that we never for a moment doubt that his comprehension is total, final….
Cheever-as-narrator is a personable fellow—debonaire, graceful, observant, and clever. His sympathies are volatile and warm. He is a good host—one who likes to entertain, to amuse, to turn a phrase. He is also a bit of a show-off, an exhibitionist. Beneath the gaiety and charm of his discourse, deep strains of melancholy and disappointment run. He is not, however, a cynic. Nor is he a profound moralist. He has no fundamental quarrel with the family or society as they now exist. For the ills of the flesh and spirit his sovereign remedy is the repeated application of love, love, love….
Cheever's highhanded way as a narrator—at its best a display of confident mastery—can degenerate into whimsicality and arbitrariness, especially in the later stories…. Sheer contrivance dominates [pieces like "Percy" or "The Jewels of the Cabots"] and others like them, squeezing the little life they contain into pointless and arbitrary shapes. Cheever's real energies during this recent period seem to have gone into those strange, dark novels, Bullet Park and Falconer, whose eccentricities—however wild—are not allowed to undermine the powerful and moving stories they have to tell.
Thanks to this volume, the best of Cheever's stories are now spread glitteringly before us. In our renewed pleasure in these, we can let the others—the trivial and the miscalculated—recede to their proper place. Cheever's accomplishment in his exacting art is proportionally large, as solid as it is brilliant, and likely to endure—a solemn thing to say (however true) of a writer who has so often flaunted the banner of devil-may-care. (p. 4)
Robert Towers, "Light Touch," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), November 9, 1978, pp. 3-4.