Frederick Bracher

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1571

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.

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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 characteristic writing derives from a vision of man's possibilities, rather than man's limitations....

(The entire section contains 4732 words.)

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