Thursday, June 04, 2009

American Master

The Stories of John Cheever, by John Cheever, Vintage International, 2000

This is not a collection for sitting down and reading straight through. For starters, The Stories of John Cheever is nearly 700 pages long, spanning over 30 years of writing. Then there's Cheever's idiosyncratic style which is at the same time endearingly crystalline and lovely while also having a seriously dated quality to it, as though you were reading an old Hollywood script or a time capsule document. There is only so much of that in one go that a person can take -- and only so much you should allow yourself to drink in.

Which sounds like more of a slam than I intend it to. Because this really is a wonderful collection, and at the risk of sounding like a glib Reader's Digest style review, something that every American home should own. Nowhere else will you find a better encapsulated view of a certain time in American life or a better portrait of the lingering desperation behind all those post-war men in gray flannel suits. Cheever has the endemic weakness, of course, to male writers in general and most acutely in the American male writers of the era such as Mailer and Jones, of being completely and totally incapable of writing female characters that even approximate human beings with depths and passions.

Which again, sounds more like a slam than I intend it to (though certainly not an enticement to my female readers to rush out and buy a copy). But of course, again it speaks to the reading in doses method I've already endorsed.

This is rather funny in one regard because the most commonly anthologized story most readers will come across is Cheever's "The Enormous Radio" which tends to find itself in high school literature books. The story follows a woman and might be one of his more nuanced portraits. Cheever sets up the story with this nice bit of casting: "Jim and Irene Westcott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins. They were the parents of two young children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theatre on an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday to live in Westchester."

Then the story rather brutally dissects the relationship of this young couple with spare efficiency when the large cabinet style radio Jim purchases for Irene begins broadcasting scenes from the neighboring apartments. The initial delight they take in eavesdropping on their neighbors turns to a kind of disgust at first at the various affairs and petty crimes, then to moral outrage, and finally to sordid desperation that almost leads to violence.

There is, in Cheever's world, always that threat, always the hint, subtle or not quite so, of a brooding rage under the surface waiting only for the right moment to strike. Consider one of my favorite stories in the collection "The Five-Forty-Eight." After being dumped so casually by the caddish businessman Blake, his ex-secretary, Miss Dent, accosts him at gunpoint on a train. The story's climactic scene outside the train station -- his stop, by the way -- is a harrowing portrait of mental illness with only trace of romanticism.

The collection gets right to that very point of violence amidst tranquil settings and what passes for normality with the very first story, "Goodbye, My Brother." When Lawrence, the black sheep of the family returns during a family vacation, he is insulting, demanding, judgmental. By the last couple pages, his older brother and the story's narrator, is braining Lawrence on the beach with a broken chunk of root, splitting his scalp open and driving him to the ground.

It is family, husbands and wives more often than not, that brings out this sudden spasmodic violent urge, and in that respect Cheever, though prone to sudden bursts of obvious fantasy, could be one of the more realistic writers of thrillers. It is statistically significant, the difference between those who experience violence from a family member and those who experience it from a stranger. Cheever's world is our own world, with a halting elegiac tone and its sudden bursts of physical threats.

"An Educated American Woman" is one of the book's cruelest stories, a barely concealed cry of misogyny from a deeply, deeply closeted gay writer, yet the bitterest twist of the story comes in the final paragraphs where our unnamed, omnisicent Dostoyevskyan narrator lets loose with a salvo of judgment of his own. The story was heartbreaking and painful and the last page gave me a sincere dose of the chills, for when taken as a story, divorced from sexual politics, the characters' actions call out for a response not so entirely inappropriate. The kick of a conclusion (and I'm being deliberately vague) gives the story an almost awesome and bewildering power.

Quite possibly the author's most famous story was the one turned into a film starring Burt Lancaster, "The Swimmer." In this allegorical fable, this surrealistic prose poem, this uncategorizable bit of brilliance, Neddy Merrill, sitting poolside one midsummer Sunday, decides that he could, through a looping path, swim from the house he's visiting through every back yard pool, along a path leading back to his own home. As he does so, time speeds up, seasons pass quickly, Neddy ages, glimpses of his own life's ruins become discernible, the story ends in tragedy. It is short and beautiful, utterly unlike anything else at that time in American literature, with an existential absurdity more akin to Kafka than anyone else writing at the time. The story's popularity at the time of its printing, its broad appeal speaks to a sense of fracturing in the facade of Cheever's bread and butter era, the 1950s. Like the sudden onslaught of Beatlemeania that same year, Cheever's "The Swimmer" heralds something new and revolutionary cooking just under the staid best seller lists.

While the early stories hint at a refusal to conform, their broad underlying thrust is toward a very conventional story structure and pattern. In the collection's last hundred and fifty pages or so, Cheever's talents seem to crack out of pattern and begin wandering off on funky new directions all his own. When he writes of sex, he becomes more explicit, but there is always a kind of forced quality to these scenes, an older generation prudery, his depictions of women's bodies more a stage direction than anything else, all "fronts" for breasts and "backs" for butts. The new directions he was discovering for himself in these last few stories hinted at some fresh outlay of genius or some incipient personality crisis, but they left me wondering what his output would have been had he managed to live another decade at least, writing such tales, instead of dying of cancer.

Let me say again, this is not a collection for sitting down and polishing off in one straight go. And you know what? That's a good thing. That's a very, very good thing. Cheever is someone to savor like an almost idyllic vacation. His prose is so curiously perched so as to seem inartful, a deliberate hiding of craft, that it takes a slow meander through his stories to note the almost perfect shine on the best of them. You should take your time with the stories of John Cheever. The novels too. You should relax, dip into this collection, you should read at a sedate pace, maybe in the bath from time to time, perhaps with a highball glass not too far out of reach, but mostly you should savor the pleasures of John Cheever just because.


Mark Twain said...

I notice you don't have any advertisements, so where's the ubiquity? It's not just you I disagree with in that thread (cynical c blog) but I respond here because the guy running that site censored my subsequent post.

The Critic said...

I don't have any advertisements because I'm running my blog on blogger which is free, so I have no need.

For various reasons, Cynical-C runs his blog out of wordpress and pays for his own hosting.

Again, even though I am in advertising, I dislike most ads I see (especially those spastic gif ones often with titles like "Obama Wants Stay At Home Moms To Go to Work!" or some other unrelated to spastic image nonsense). I've trained my eye, like many people, just to glaze over at them.

Mark Twain said...

What might those various reasons be?

The Critic said...

Well, it's not my place to say what other person's motivations might be, now is it?