Owen Richard­son marks John Cheever’s cen­te­nary

Owen Richard­son salutes the great John Cheever in his cen­te­nary year

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

WHEN US writer John Cheever died in June 1982, an English news­pa­per rather loftily tagged him as ‘‘ the typ­i­cal New Yorker writer’’. It was a la­bel his Amer­i­can crit­ics had started to ap­ply early on to his sto­ries and their con­cern with the lives of the WASPy up­per mid­dle class in Man­hat­tan and, later, the New York sub­urbs: the man in the grey flan­nel suit on the com­muter train, the adul­ter­ies and the week­end drink­ing par­ties.

John Updike is the writer with whom he is most of­ten and rather un­think­ingly linked, but the com­par­i­son only goes so far. Cheever’s prose is much less self-con­scious and his out­look much less op­ti­mistic, in much closer con­tact with the out­skirts and lower depths of ex­pe­ri­ence. Along with the im­pulse to cel­e­brate a way of life came a sense of its nar­row­ness and smug­ness, its de­pen­dence on de­nial and ex­clu­sion, a set of val­ues against which Cheever’s char­ac­ters are star­tled into re­bel­lion. He can make Updike seem com­pla­cent.

He was born in Quincy, Mas­sachusetts, on May 27, 1912, and be­gan pub­lish­ing just af­ter he was expelled from school. By the 1940s he was well-en­sconced at the mag­a­zine with which his name was then as­so­ci­ated, and his first book of short sto­ries, The Way Some Peo­ple Live, came out in 1943. The Enor­mous Ra­dio fol­lowed in 1953, and in 1958 the col­lec­tion con­tain­ing many of the sto­ries for which Cheever is most re­mem­bered, The House­breaker of Shady Hill, which es­tab­lished the fic­tional town in up­state New York that would fea­ture in his work.

Cheever didn’t feel he had made it un­til he wrote a novel, and The Wap­shot Chron­i­cle ap­peared in 1957. The Wap­shot Scan­dal fol­lowed seven years later. Th­ese books about the ec­cen­tric, shabby-gen­teel fam­ily of their ti­tles won prizes and were well-re­viewed, even if there were cav­ils that they were re­ally col­lec­tions of short sto­ries in dis­guise.

Short fic­tion made Cheever’s rep­u­ta­tion, and his sto­ries are some of the best ex­am­ples of the form. A com­pi­la­tion, The Sto­ries of John Cheever, won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for fic­tion. In The Coun­try Hus­band, the story Vladimir Nabokov de­scribed as ‘‘ a minia­ture novel beau­ti­fully traced’’, Fran­cis Weed sur­vives a plane accident only to dis­cover the world to which he re­turns no longer seems enough. He starts to be­have badly: he slan­ders an in­no­cent young man who wants his help; he lusts af­ter the babysit­ter, not co­in­ci­den­tally the young man’s girl­friend; he in­sults the woman who is the so­cial leader of Shady Hill. In the end, with the help of a psy­chi­a­trist, he re­turns to nor­mal­ity, but the fa­mous last lines of the story sing with the sense of some magic world that Weed has failed to at­tain: ‘‘ Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride ele­phants over the moun­tains.’’

The cold­ness and mean­ness of the con­ven­tional male get their deserts in The Five-Forty Eight, which is about Blake, who se­duces and then dis­cards his un­sta­ble, needy sec­re­tary (‘‘The next day, he did what he felt was the only sen­si­ble thing. When she was out to lunch, he called per­son­nel and asked them to fire her.’’). He is then con­fronted by her, gun in hand, on the com­muter train back to Shady Hill. She makes him grovel in the dirt out­side the sta­tion. The writ­ers of the TV se­ries Mad Men have yet to come up with so vivid and com­pressed a de­pic­tion of the sex wars in the 50s. It was a story John Carver liked so much he wrote a se­quel to it.

Then there is O Youth and Beauty, in which

CON­FINE­MENT WAS HIS THEME: IN AD­DIC­TION, IN SO­CIAL AND SEX­UAL CON­VEN­TION

and ends up shot in the heart by his wife, and The Bright Red Re­moval Van, in which a sim­i­lar fray­ing hero de­stroys ev­ery so­cial sit­u­a­tion he finds him­self in by mak­ing an even ruder and ram­bunc­tious spec­ta­cle of him­self: ‘‘ ‘ I have to teach them,’ Gee-Gee said. [Gee-Gee be­ing his col­lege nick­name: Greek God.] ‘ They’ve got to learn.’ ’’

In his sto­ries Cheever was try­ing quite lit­er­ally to mythol­o­gise the world of the sub­urbs. Crit­ics have un­cov­ered the way in which The Swim­mer, for in­stance, in which Neddy Mer­rill swims his way home across sub­ur­ban swim­ming pools only to find that his house is de­serted and his fam­ily fled, de­picts a Grail nar­ra­tive so specif­i­cally that it can only have been in­ten­tional. Although Cheever was by no means a mod­ernist, he had in com­mon with those writ­ers an in­ter­est in mythic pat­tern­ing and it has been sur­mised that his source for The Swim­mer was Jessie We­ston’s From Rit­ual to Ro­mance, the book fa­mously re­ferred to in the notes to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste­land: and both the story and Cheever’s later Fal­coner rely on al­lu­sions to Dante, a favourite writer of Cheever, as of Eliot.

Later sto­ries give us meta­mor­phoses and de­scents into Hades: it was Time mag­a­zine that called Cheever ‘‘ The Ovid of Ossin­ing’’ (Ossin­ing is the up­state New York town where Cheever set­tled in 1961). Sub­ur­ban ba­nal­ity is thus re­fused in two ways: by his char­ac­ters, with their mo­ments of law­less be­hav­iour, and by Cheever him­self en­larg­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of his char­ac­ters’ lives by re­lat­ing them back to deeper struc­tures of myths.

As Cheever’s writ­ing went on it moved fur­ther away from re­al­ism, and the strains of satire and fan­tasy be­came stronger as he be­came more dis­il­lu­sioned with the way Amer­i­can life was go­ing. One of the forms in which he dealt was pas­toral, and his writ­ings are full of dis­may at the pol­lu­tion and des­e­cra­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment. In­deed his last novel, O What a Par­adise It Seems, pub­lished the year of his death, re­volves around a cam­paign to save a pond that has be­come a dump­ing ground for local in­dus­try.

The dis­or­ders of the pe­riod show up most clearly in his 1969 novel Bul­let Park. It’s the story of Nailles, the sub­ur­ban Mr Nice Guy, and his al­ter-ego (if that is what he is), Ham­mer, the psy­chopath who turns up in the protest against the mod­ern world would be to cru­cify some­one: he picks Nailles’s de­pressed son as the vic­tim and gets very far along with his plan be­fore he is foiled. The im­plau­si­bil­i­ties of the plot and its mag­i­cal re­al­ist el­e­ments con­fused re­view­ers on the book’s first ap­pear­ance: its hec­tic, far-out qual­i­ties still seem like an ur­gent bul­letin from a so­ci­ety in which noth­ing firm can hold.

Al­co­hol may also have played a part in the chaos of the book. It was pub­lished to­wards the be­gin­ning of the pe­riod in which Cheever’s drink­ing threat­ened to de­stroy his life. When he sobered up he be­came more re­laxed about his bi­sex­u­al­ity and had a num­ber of af­fairs with younger men; his new-found sense of ease with his de­sires fed into his 1977 novel, Fal­coner. The col­lege pro­fes­sor Far­ragut is sent to jail for mur­der­ing his brother, who has taunted him with the fact their fa­ther didn’t want him born, and while inside, as well as from with­draw­ing from heroin ad­dic­tion, he finds love with a younger pris­oner. Once again, the novel takes off into fan­tasy: Far­ragut es­capes from the jail by im­per­son­at­ing a corpse, while his boyfriend es­capes by im­per­son­at­ing an al­tar boy.

When his jour­nals were pub­lished in 1991, with their rev­e­la­tions about his cat­a­strophic al­co­holism and se­cret ho­mo­sex­ual life, Cheever’s im­age as the chron­i­cler of Westch­ester was turned com­pletely up­side down. In them a bur­nished, elo­quent prose records a life be­com­ing ever more des­per­ate, the ma­nip­u­la­tions, the self-de­cep­tions and self-pity and self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tions of the drunk­ard, and the dread al­lure of the go­ings-on in the Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion men’s room and how it rep­re­sented the de­struc­tion of sun­lit fam­ily life. Yet this dou­ble­ness — out­ward re­spectabil­ity bat­tling with in­ner trans­gres­sive­ness — only gave the lim­it­ing bi­o­graph­i­cal foot­note for what was al­ready pretty plain from his fic­tion.

Cheever once said in an in­ter­view that con­fine­ment was his theme: con­fine­ment in ad­dic­tion, con­fine­ment in so­cial and sex­ual con­ven­tion. What gives depth and grandeur to his work, how­ever, is his sense that those con­ven­tions are also there to hold peo­ple up, keep things together.

F. Scott Fitzger­ald, one of his pre­cur­sors, re­marked it was the sign of a first-rate in­tel­lect to be able to hold two op­pos­ing ideas in the mind at the same time; and when the last line of Bul­let Park tells us that ev­ery­thing went back to nor­mal, and was ‘‘ won­der­ful, won­der­ful, won­der­ful, won­der­ful’’, Cheever means it and is wink­ing at us at the same time.

He lets us know he shares our doubts and am­biva­lences, and he doesn’t seek to re­solve them or set them straight.

John Cheever

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