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Tuesday
Aug182009

1981

The Stories of John Cheever

By John Cheever

Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Current Publisher: Vintage Books (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)

Willie Perdomo writes:

As a poet, writing an appreciation of The Stories of John Cheever is probably outside of my genre jurisdiction. (If Bellow’sHumboldt’s Gift was on the list, I would’ve had to defer to the ghost of Von Humboldt Fleisher, no questions asked.) I’m afraid to admit—as a poet—I chose this particular National Book Award winner for sentimental reasons.The day after I told my first mentor that I wanted to be a writer, he gave me two books as starter kits: Leaf Storm by Gabriel Garcia Marquez andThe World of Applesby John Cheever. I tried to read some of the Cheever but quickly put it down, because there was nothing in the stories that I could point to and say, “That’s me.” The only “harsh surface beauty of life” that I knew was lying wrecked on the curbs of Reagan-era East Harlem, but that didn’t stop me and my boys from going to a Sweet 16 on Friday night and rounding everyone up on Saturday morning to go to Orchard Beach. On the surface, I had nothing in common with the Pomeroys and the Cabots or couples who lived on Sutton Place. It was after reading Cheever as an adult, as a writer; after experiencing love, rejection, abandonment, embarrassment, humiliation, confusion and becoming well-versed in self-destruction, that I got on a first name basis with the choices that Cheever’s characters make in the face of denial.

In one of his most comprehensive interviews, the poet Etheridge Knight said that an artist is in trouble when “he’s feeling one thing and doing another.” Those are most of Cheever’s characters (major or minor)—feeling one thing and doing another. Anyone who at anytime, whether boisterously or in hawk silence, has admitted to lying, deception, adultery, melancholic drunkenness, or conflict can relate to Cheever. Anyone. It’s only when we get past the symbols of privilege that we can see the fractures.The beauty of Cheever’s characters is that when they burn there’s usually a gleam of river light somewhere; it reveals that not only does so much depend on a rain-glazed red wheelbarrow near white chickens, but that much of the turn in life depends on whether you catch the 12:31am out of Grand Central Terminal.

Cheever was often compared to Chekhov, and he invited the comparison with refreshing self-deprecation. The one thing he enjoyed about Chekhov was that he had a “perfect ear.” Not a suitable or accurate ear but a perfect one; one that could help him write the kind of line that summed up a man’s grain. Cheever was the only writer I know who could make a vacuum cleaner lament or an ocean recite poetry. Like a sneak thief he committed grand larceny with sentences (my first impulse is to call them lines) like, “The company of a lie is unbearable.” Or “In order to see anything—a leaf or a blade of grass—you have, I think, to know the keenness of love.” And “Geometry served him beautifully for the metaphysics of understood pain.” (This is where my Urban Word students would say, “Ohhhh...Cheever killed it, son.”)

There are a few things I got from reading Cheever: aquatic zeal; belief that a spilled drink is a good omen; a purist love for deli sandwiches and curves. I have no god-like skills as a raconteur or a desperate need to be considered an aristocrat. True to my addictive streak, everything is a trigger: rain, sidewalks, hats, curls, prayer, daylight savings time and taxi cabs. During the early '90s my college sweetheart, Tanisa, lived in New Rochelle. A few mornings out of the week, I commuted between New Rochelle and Harlem where I worked at Marie Brown Associates, a literary agency. I remember one particular October morning that was framed in a beatific drizzle. I was standing on the southbound New Rochelle platform, waiting for the 10:29. I was high with the sharp, intoxicating residue of having just made young, clumsy love through alarms and snooze-buttons, toothbrushes and showers,and for a moment the empty benches on the northbound side, the stop signs, the direction arrows, the garbage cans, and the streams of rocks between tracks were coated in a bottomless silence. I remember how the promise of that moment was punctuated by the excited horn-blare of the 10:29, and I was sure that I had just taken a breath from the “keenness of love.” (And here is where my students would say, “It was either that, or the como se llama you had in the morning was hella good!”)

Willie Perdomo is the author of Where a Nickel Costs a DimeandSmoking Lovely, which received a PEN America Beyond Margins Award. He is a 2009 fellow in Poetry from NYFA, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and was recently a Woolrich Fellow in Creative Writing at Columbia University. He is also an instructor in the National Book Foundation’s BookUpNYC program. www.willieperdomo.com

 

Matthew Pitt writes:

I own the paperback, pocket version of The Stories of John Cheever—though given its sixty-one tales and 800 pages, I’d like to see the pocket it could fit inside. I bought my copy new, but have since, in my devotion, nearly destroyed it. Its fractured spine is now bound with gray strips of duct tape. After cracking it open so often, to recall some crystalline phrase from “The Wrysons,” or the pitch-perfect panic depicted in “Angel on the Bridge,” my book broke in two one day like a bread loaf. Snapping apart at pages 510-511 (“The Death of Justina”). “Reunion” is dog-eared; that ad hoc duct tape spine is peeling. Most of the collection’s wounds, though, are of my doing: passages I starred in wonder, writing astonished remarks in the margins of nearly each story.

No way can I do justice to the vast constellations making up Cheever’s made-up universe. But it strikes me that the first story of his I read, “The Enormous Radio,” is representative of his finest work in the form. Here we have Cheever’s striving city-dwellers, bound close in their Sutton Place high-rise, so decorous in public. Yet despite proximity, and the joviality of highball hours, they are mysteries to each other.

Within their walls, the couples and families flout foibles, vices, and regrets. All of which Jim and Irene Westcott are able to receive surreptitiously, thanks to the ugly gumwood radio Jim bought: “an aggressive intruder...with a malevolent green light.” Each twist of dials slides the fang of the radio tooth to eavesdrop on a new apartment, where it picks up the frequency of some new forlorn voice, or heated argument. The first conversations Irene monitors amuse her: apple cores left in ashtrays, “demonstrations of indigestion, carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith and despair.” Her amusement gives way to discomfort as the signals relayed ratchet up (petty theft, domestic violence). She and Jim are eventually ensnared in kind.

I am astounded by the dread Cheever musters. His prose’s reverent energy seems to match wits and strike a tension with his rendering of the profane. The surreal device of the prying radio—like other wry incongruities Cheever slips into his snapshots of suburbia and office jobs—invites readers to not only admire his stories, but also to finish them with a quiet shiver. So look closely at his pages, no matter if you’re studying my tattered version, or if you have a clean copy in hand. Look at the perspectives—cockeyed but exacting. Look at the characters—messy and mesmerizing. Look at the sentences— they’re full of scribbled stars.

Recent stories by Matthew Pitt were cited in both the Best American and Pushcart Prize series. Autumn House Press will publish his first story collection in spring 2010.

 

Robert Wilder writes:

When I was a boy, I was fascinated with my father’s closet. He had a long row of Brooks Brothers suits sorted by weight and season, and looming underneath these dark uniforms were pairs of corresponding dress shoes from Lloyd & Haig. Because I was curious, he showed me how he rotated both suits and shoes to make them last; all had been in circulation longer than I had, he said, some for almost twenty years when I was six or seven. He still has one suit left for weddings and funerals and two pairs of shoes that have seen very little use since he moved to Florida.

My fascination didn’t end with my father’s closet, however. It followed him on the minibus to Green Farms station to catch the 7:00 train and then into New York City. I had very little idea what he did exactly for those thirty-five years he worked for Bankers Trust down on Wall Street and then in midtown. I was only allowed fleeting glimpses into his world—one day visiting his office with my mother and three brothers where I marveled at the men with slicked back hair and women in polyester suits smoking a helluva lot. Ashtrays everywhere. A window office and a minute in his chair before my younger brother Tom had his turn. One train ride home with him much later where he outlined the different subsets of his commuter world: card players, newspaper readers, dozers, and a warning to never make riding in the bar car a habit.

When I was assigned The Stories of John Cheever in graduate school (sadly, that’s where he’s been ghettoed), I had already escaped the East for the casual dress desert of the Southwest. Reading stories like “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill”, “The Five-Forty-Eight”, and “The Country Husband” brought me back to living in the suburbs and feeling New York’s looming influence on our bedroom community. I started to see the inner lives of my father and his friends, husbands and wives, mortgages and promotions, Beefeater Gibsons on the rocks with three onions before the tie was loosened. When I read “Goodbye, My Brother”, I not only understood more about the conflict I had with my own older brother but the one inside myself: dark versus light, beauty versus ugliness, truth versus silence. I love how Cheever can show such desperation in these men and women yet also reveal how, even in Shady Hill or Westport or Larchmont, humans still relentlessly strive for beauty. These mortal gestures toward grace may be broken, slurred, untimely, or bordering on pathetic, yet we still strive.

Finally, as a writer, I felt as if Cheever gave me (and many much greater who came before) permission to venture beyond the suburbs, beyond realism, toward something magical in stories like “The Enormous Radio” and “The Swimmer” (which was filmed in my hometown), that the reason I had moved out West was to push beyond the limits of my own Shady Hill in my life and in my work.

Robert Wilder, a writer and high school English teacher, was a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s inaugural Innovations in Reading Prize in 2009. His column, “Daddy Needs a Drink,” is published monthly in the Santa Fe Reporter. Many of these essays are collected in his first book, Daddy Needs a Drink (Delacourte Press, 2006).

 

ISBN: 9780375724428

Fiction (Paperback) Finalists that Year:

  • Thomas Flanagan for The Year of the French
  • Norman Mailer for The Executioner's Song
  • Scott Spencer for Endless Love
  • Herman Wouk for War and Remembrance

Fiction Judges that Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:

  • A Confederacy of Dunces by the late John Kennedy Toole won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Elias Canetti won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:  

  • This was John Cheever’s second National Book Award win, which occurred twenty-three years after his first for The Wapshot Chronicle.
  • The Stories of John Cheever also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1979.

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Reader Comments (2)

I am a retired teacher of English, art history and film. In all my 46 years of teaching, I have returned to only a few authors again and again, as if for sustenance and inspiration. Wallace Stegner, Frank O'Hara, Flannery O'Connor, Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, and many others. But no author has been as constant and giving to me as John Cheever. I had read practically all the stories and novels when The Stories of John Cheever was published. It became almost like a bible for me. I used many of the stories in my classes as examples of the art of the story.

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Awsumb

John Cheever is my vote for who should win the National Book Award. He reveals the truth behind the seemingly languid Americans, lounging in their dens or back yards, drinks in hand, talking of things they think are pertinent. His story The Swimmer is one of the best. As he swims from one neighbor's pool to another, the reader is able to see how shallow all the relationships are. Toward the end, Cheever says, through the swimmer: "The bartender served him but be served him rudely. His was a world in which the caterer's men kept the social score, and to be rebuffed by a part-time barkeep meant that be had suffered some loss of social esteem." Brilliant! I read this story first in the 80s & it resounded with me (I was then married to the son of a wealthy family. Despite the fact that some of the people in & around this family were good, fascinating, kind people, most of us were standing by pools, drinks in hand, talking about art & music & doing nothing with our lives. I'm happy to be out of that world now, living in a rugged Coloorado town with my 2nd husband who is an Anthropologist. Cheever was an Anthropological student. He studied human cultures within the American suburbs.

September 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDixie Elder
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