The Stories of John Cheever

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

John Cheever is a member of The New Yorker school of fiction; that is to say, most of the stories in this volume originally appeared in the narrow, triple-columned pages of that famous weekly magazine, winding their way around the cartoons and the advertisements, refusing until recently to divulge their author’s name unless one had the perseverance to follow a story out to its end. For many of us in the hinterlands The New Yorker represents the urbane and sophisticated world at the heart of whatever it is that makes New York first among American cities. New York captures the energy and multiethnic style of the Big Apple; The New York Times reflects the city’s size in its enormous grasp of the world’s news. Only The New Yorker, however, seems to reflect the high cultural world, the professional upper-middle-class society, which is the quintessence of New York City.

The New Yorker takes itself very seriously as a literary magazine; its pages have been graced over the years by a high percentage of Cheever’s short stories, as well as those of John Updike, Donald Barthleme, and many other well-known writers of fiction in America. What all these writers have in common, in a sense, is a very high level of style, perhaps not surprising in the light of the fact that many of them felt the improving editorial hand of E. B. White, coauthor of Elements of Style. What they also share, and here Cheever is first among them, is a gently ironic vision of the society they speak to through the pages of this journal. Most of Cheever’s heroes are losers, failed seekers after the American dream; while many of the central figures in these stories do the sorts of things one expects of the well-to-do, like vacation in Europe or summer at the shore, few if any seem comfortable with their prosperity or satisfied with their accomplishments. Instead, they appear to be as much outsiders as any of us, hardly happier or more in control of their lives than the millions who look to them as models of success in American society.

Cheever’s world is, of course, much richer and more varied than urban or suburban New York; a significant number of these stories have a foreign setting, usually Italy, but regardless of the setting, the central characters inevitably find themselves outsiders, incapable of breaking out of lives they find themselves trapped in, or breaking into worlds which seem remote but appealing. Some comments Cheever makes in the brief preface may be enlightening; he writes,These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like ’the Cleveland Chicken,’ sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are.

Since that world was already gone when Cheever began to write these stories in the late 1940’s, perhaps such a world is a source of nostalgia for his characters as well as for their author. Perhaps what is essential to so many of these stories is just that sense of a golden age, which is now lost and no New Yorker now, no matter how rich or powerful, can ever recapture it. Yet they think it was once there, and so all that is achieved today seems pale by comparison with images of it.

Readers familiar with Cheever’s short fiction from the anthologized pieces will find them here, including “The Swimmer,” in which the hero tries to go home by swimming a...

(The entire section is 1564 words.)