John Cheever Cheever, John (Vol. 15) - Essay

Frederick Bracher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The stories in [The Way Some People Live (1943)] sound the knowing, wry, ironic note of The New Yorker in the late thirties, and in both tone and content they suggest John O'Hara. But the most successful stories—like "Survivor," "In the Eyes of God," or "Forever Hold Your Peace"—have moral implications beyond the range of the bitter anecdote. In The Enormous Radio (1953), the assured elegance of Cheever's style is matched by a heightened moral sensibility, and many of the stories, turning away from the frustrations and blind alleys of urban life, celebrate the continuing possibilities of human experience. The volume contains some of Cheever's best, and some of his best known, stories: "Goodbye, My Brother," "The Children," "Torch Song," "The Summer Farmer," and the title story. The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1958) moves from the city to the Westchester suburbs, but Cheever continues to celebrate life even in this unpromising setting. The title story of Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961) hints at a major change of intention and material: Cheever here turns his back on much of his earlier writing. His new novel, he writes, will be quite different in "pace and color" from The Wapshot Chronicle, and evidences of a change in tone and method can be seen in the stories which have appeared in The New Yorker since 1960.

Cheever's stories have usually been praised for their literary excellence: they have a high polish and reflect an urbane and subtle mind. But they are necessarily discontinuous; the principal source of a short story, according to Cheever, is "the interrupted event." Contemporary life, seen through Cheever's stories, may look like "a chain of brilliant reflections on water, unrelated perhaps to the motion of the water itself, but completely absorbing in their color and shine." But there is much more to Cheever's writing than superficial glitter, and his stories, though highly entertaining, are not mere entertainment.

Since stories are necessarily unique, dramatic, and self-contained, it is difficult to sum up a writer like Cheever in a few generalizing phrases. Certain characteristic traits nevertheless stand out. One of them is a fascination with "the color and shine" of life, apparent even in his earliest stories. This is matched by, and related to, an acuteness of feeling which sets him apart from the general run of New Yorker writers. Cheever is essentially a man of sensibility, rather than an analyst, social critic, or explicator; and it is probably the acuteness of his feelings that has led to his pervasive view of life as a "perilous moral adventure." (pp. 66-7)

[The] moral weight of Cheever's writing has usually been on the side of affirmation; and in this respect he differs from many of his contemporaries. But his celebration of life is not achieved by a facile ignoring of man's limitations and dark destiny. On the contrary, it is his pervading sense of the fragility of life that makes his moments of illumination possible. Shady Hill hangs by a thread over moral and economic chaos, but it does hang there in the evening light. In Cheever's stories, only those who feel their insecurity can ever burst joy's grape; and in "The Death of Justina" the narrator explicitly questions how a society which denies or prettifies Death can ever hope to understand love. By his own account, Cheever writes stories "to make some link between the light in the sky and the taste of death."

In this respect, Cheever's stories approximate the original function of comedy. If tragedy deplores the death of Dionysus, comedy celebrates the renewal of life that follows the death, "the epiphany or manifestation of the risen hero." (p. 68)

Cheever's most...

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Burton Kendle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Cheever's "The Enormous Radio" derives much of its power from an ironic reinterpretation of the Eden story that helps to universalize what might otherwise appear to be merely a brilliant study of mid-century urban discontent. The chief characters, Jim and Irene Westcott, are appropriately typical representatives of their class and "seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the reports in college alumni bulletins." Their life is comfortably commonplace, except for their sensitivity to classical music that both precipitates and explains their response to the radio. Eve's hubris seems ironically paralleled by Irene's somewhat self-consciously developed sensitivity. Significantly, the purchase of the radio is attributed to Jim's uxoriousness; he wants not only to keep his promise, but also to produce "a surprise for her…."

Cheever develops the motif of innocence by details like Irene's "wide, fine forehead upon which nothing at all had been written," and Jim's youthfulness: "he dressed in the clothes his class had worn at Andover, and his manner was earnest, vehement, and intentionally naive." The radio, an appropriately ugly instrument that looks "like an aggressive intruder" to Irene, is the Satanic invader of the Westcotts' world of apparent innocence. Like her archetypal parallel, Irene is the first to become aware of the radio's "mistaken sensitivity to discord," though not of the significance of this discord. Eve's momentary illusion of godhead,...

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J. D. O'Hara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[John Cheever] like Borges is fond of giving his characters lots of room to meditate, generalize, philosophize, and turn their stories into illustrated essays…. [His] work has begun to resemble that of Borges in another way too. The post-World-War-II upperclass world of which he writes, the well-educated gin-drinking manners—conscious gentry on the decline … all this has become faded, unreal, and as literary as the settings and characters of Borges' stories.

The effect is valuable, in allowing us to see deeper into Cheever's subjects. For a single instance: he has often disturbed readers with his insistence on the mutual incompatibility of brothers—which is putting it mildly; they tend to try to kill each other. And sure enough, the very first story in [The Stories of John Cheever] ends with a Cain felling his brother with a piece of driftwood. But the collection and the distancing of reality into fiction show us something else: Cheever's brothers divide life into what it ought to be (defined as rules, as ideals, as art, as rigidity) and what it is (defined as mess, liveliness, sordidness, intensity). In story after story, siding sometimes with one, sometimes with the other, Cheever works out variations on these complements of life as necessary to us as up and down, good and bad, better and worse, life and death.

Not all the 61 stories collected here are good—this is reality, after all, and besides, they include that much-anthologized and lousy story "The Enormous Radio"; but this collection should go far toward overcoming the overpraise of Falconer. It displays Cheever as perhaps the most successful short story writer of the North American 20th century, which is pretty good for starters. (p. 233)

J. D. O'Hara, "Reflections on Recent Prose," in New England Review (copyright © 1978 by Kenyon Hill Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission of New England Review), Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter, 1978, pp. 221-35.∗

John N. Swift

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The size of The Stories of John Cheever]—sixty-one stories, seven hundred pages—necessarily obscures the excellences of individual pieces, as their edges run together; Cheever's obsessively adulterous suburbanites and alcoholic expatriates eventually parody one another, and the complexities of their descriptions are levelled by repetition. On the other hand—and this is true of any writer's collected works—as our attention strays from the plots and characters, it fastens on the author himself, developing as an artist behind the subdued voices of his narrators…. A collection may have as clearly defined a plot as any of its constituent stories, and Cheever advises us [in his preface] that the plot of this collection is the "naked history" of his development as a writer. It is not, however, quite the dramatic formative struggle that he would have us find; the development is indeed a process of self-education, but for Cheever that process evidently involves accommodation, a slow adaptation of narrative voice to the world, to one's self, and to one's limitations. In the earliest stages of his career Cheever is already formed as a writer, and eats his peas off a fork with self-conscious precision; the developmental process of the stories is one of relaxation, of retreat from the first narrators' refusals to be publicly drunk and clumsy.

Those earliest voices are cynically tough, and they keep a safe distance from their stories; they hold the world at arm's length, practically between two fingers, and with good reason. The world of Cheever's early work is mean-spirited and corrupt, and the narrators suggest that detachment is conscience's only defense. As a result, they insist on their own emotional neutrality, and the burden of emotional response passes to the reader, to accept or reject as he sees fit…. The narrator [in "The Hartleys"] presents misplaced love and spilled blood with equal understatement; in fact, at the moment of disaster he manipulates our perspective to be sure that we recognize the glacial remoteness of his view of human tragedy…. The story ends with a general refusal of all emotional relief…. (pp. 91-2)

It is not a nice story, nor is it a nice narrator, but he is clearly in complete control of himself, his characters, and his readers. One can hardly imagine this self-possessed presence doing anything so personal or risky as describing himself as naive, obtuse, or clumsy; clearly, a long artistic journey separates his aloof self-righteousness from the confiding tones of Cheever's preface. The journey's end is a reconciliation of the speaker to his world, and its first step is a recognition of the emotional and aesthetic dishonesty of narrative detachment from that world. For of course the objectivity of the speaker of "The Hartleys" is a fraud: for all its apparent slice-of-life realism, the story is a controlled moral parable, a didactic exercise rather than a depiction of experience. Its purpose is to expose savagely the inadequacies of emotionally self-indulgent parents, and, like that of much didactic literature, its language is disappointingly sterile and abstract, referring the reader to types and categories rather than particular images…. We may be able to forgive a narrator's inhuman detachment when it is coupled with a capacity for accurate...

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Pearl K. Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The tales collected in The Stories of John Cheever are] awash in the rain of disenchantment and regret, rank with the smell of decay. Though Cheever tried, in his two Wapshot novels, to broaden his scope by endowing the poignancy of nostalgia with a local habitation and name—to portray a vanished New England blessed with social coherence, domestic stability, and moral grace—the quality of his yearning comes through with much greater power in his short stories. His temperament and talent are not at ease with the patient exploration of motives and extended personal histories, but they are flawlessly suited to the sentient moment, the rigorously foreshortened episode and isolated visual detail that suggest an...

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Michael Mason

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are occasional touches of self-importance in [The Stories of John Cheever], but the author has always been very much on his guard against their recurrence and so—being tremendously gifted—he has reaped the true, substantial rewards of lightness. Not disabled by high-mindedness about content or form, his stories have made a brilliant and serious contribution to the genre….

The particular brand of self-importance Cheever had to resist in the early stories was moralistic. Crudely speaking, he was liable to sudden outbursts of severity about booze in the metropolitan stories (see "The Sorrows of Gin") and about sex in the suburban ones (see "Just Tell Me Who it Was", or "Brimmer"—which moves on to the Italian setting)….

Cheever is also occasionally betrayed into a note of self-importance about technique. This is natural, since he has something highly original and thoughtful to offer here, especially in certain remarkable stories written since 1960. The secret of these is an unwinding or disintegrating structure, such that the narrative development—like a film run backwards—generates more and more components that require assembly, rather than undertaking the assembly itself. In the early instances of "Boy in Rome" and "A Vision of the World" this procedure is associated with a rather leaden and disingenuous commentary by the author. In the later, extraordinary story "Montraldo" a much greater degree of disintegration of structure is handled with complete nonchalance.

This art of loose ends is not a gimmick. Terms such as "chain" and "connection" appear frequently in Cheever's own remarks about his fiction, and he is referring to a new, difficult kind of connectedness—which is necessarily antagonistic to the tidiness so lethal to the short story form. Cheever knows—and brilliantly conveys as early as the end of "The Sorrows of Gin"—how disorderly the human mind is, how much closer we are than we usually acknowledge to dreaming even in waking life.

Michael Mason, "Gilt-Edged Investments," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4003, December 7, 1979, p. 103.