On Learning to Appreciate John Cheever's Stories
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In the fall of 1973, I was a member of John Cheever's writing class at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. John was then 61 years old, which seemed to me preposterously old at the time (as you can imagine, I've since modified my view), and he seemed rather frail and diminished into the bargain. I had read his stories -- most of them -- in a desultory way, but in that era of scintillating narrative experimentation they struck me as being somewhat antiquated, solid stories of a bygone era. The term "experimental" was my mantra, but John was having none of it. His own stories were experimental, he insisted, as was all good fiction, but I didn't believe him. In the blind and arrogant way of the young, I felt I knew better.
But oh, how wrong I was! That came home to me in force five years later, when he published his collected stories (The Stories of John Cheever, 1978, winner of that year's Pulitzer Prize in fiction), a volume of 61 short stories I have re-read for its comfort and enduring beauty every few years since.
There is a great, questing soul alive everywhere in these stories, a soul trying to come to grips with the parameters of human experience amid the ravishing beauty of nature. Few prose writers can touch Cheever for the painterly precision of his descriptions, and the reward of them too -- his characters, locked in the struggles of suburban and familial angst, regularly experience moments of transcendence and rebirth in nature.
My recommendation? Read the entire book through, the stories unfolding in chronological order, and you will feel the deep calm of immersion in Cheever's universe, even as you see the world of his society, our society, unfolding in all its fads and obsessions from the end of World War II through the late 1970s. The first story, "Goodbye, My Brother," remains one of my favorites, an exercise in point of view that contrasts the optimistic and pessimistic poles of human nature in the characters of two brothers, the sunny (and, as we gradually see, prejudicial) narrator and his saturnine brother.
It ends in a golden, life-affirming moment in nature, with some of Cheever's best-known and most lyrical lines: "Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eyes in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming -- Diana and Helen -- and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea."
The language here is powerful, rhetorical, enriched by Cheever's familiarity with the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and it is this precise diction and ringing syntax that informs all the stories and makes reading them such a comfort. There is a comfort too in the settings of the stories -- most of them take place in the Westchester suburbs or in vacation houses in New England or Italy -- and in the array of characters, typically male and typically befuddled or perplexed by the strictures of upper middle class society.
These are familiar people, and many of these stories will be familiar to you, too: echoes from the past, a sleepy classroom, the window open onto a larger world where everything has its place in an immemorial order, and somewhere a panting retriever lopes across an eternal lawn while the clouds gather and the sun struggles through.
NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this series.
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