Owen Richardson marks John Cheever’s centenary
Owen Richardson salutes the great John Cheever in his centenary year
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.