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The Stories of John Cheever ()

Pulitzer Prize (Fiction) (1979)

There's a certain smug, elitist assumption in most of the highbrow fiction of the 50s, 60s & 70s that American suburbia is sort of a Potemkin Village--a pretty facade disguising lives of quiet desperation.  This attitude was particularly evident in the pages of The New Yorker, in the stories of folks like John O'Hara, John Updike and John Cheever.  You know the type of story--Dad works in the aerospace industry; Mom's a real estate broker; there are three kids, barbecues every weekend, bridge clubs, bowling leagues, etc., etc., etc., but no one really finds their life fulfilling so they secretly escape into sex, drugs and alcohol, yadda, yadda, yadda...

Perhaps the most famous example of the genre is Cheever's famous story The Swimmer.  On a brilliant summer day Neddy Merrill decides to swim home from cocktails at his neighbors via the swimming pools that virtually everyone has in their backyard.  As he starts out he seems to be virtually a child:

    He was a slender man--he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth--and while he was far
    from young he had slid down his banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite
    on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room.  He might
    have been compared to a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a
    tennis racket or a sail bag the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather.

But as he progresses from pool to pool, he seems to age and even the weather seems to transition from Summer to Fall.  His optimism and satisfaction with life is gradually replaced by intimations that he may be blocking out his actual situation, that his life may in fact be a mess.  Finally, as he arrives at his own house, he finds:

    The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had Lucinda stayed at the
    Westerhazys' for supper? Had the girls joined her there or gone someplace else?... The house was
    locked, and he thought that the stupid cook or the stupid maid must have locked the place up until
    he remembered that it had been some time since they had employed a maid or a cook. He shouted,
    pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw
    that the place was empty.

Regardless of whether Neddy's journey is meant to symbolize his entire life or his earlier optimism is meant to be mere self delusion, at the heart of the story lies the message that things are not as they seem in this happy upper middle class burgh, that lurking just beneath the surface is the looming specter of financial and emotional ruin.

Much of this disdain for Middle America is simply political.  The suburbs were populated by fairly conservative businessmen, white collar workers and skilled employees.  Those little pink houses contained traditional families, churchgoers, Elks Club members, etc.  This was the Silent Majority that Nixon talked about.  The institutional Left meanwhile is fairly urban, more morally permissive and, prior to the advent of the new Market, not very familiar with or concerned about business.  The antipathy between the two, sort of a large scale Town & Gown rivalry, is natural.  It is only exacerbated by the fact that the intelligentsia tend to be fairly miserable and bitterly resented the bucolic lives of those who had fled the city.  Add to these general motives the fact that Cheever was the product of a domineering mother and an unsuccessful father, was alcoholic and a closeted homosexual, and was a social climber humiliated by his own lack of formal education, and it is not hard to see why he would tend to assume the worst about the happy lives of others.  Buried deep behind the false front he put up, it's inevitable that he suspected that others were presenting false selves too.

The best story in this collection captures his own doubt about this supposition.  In The Worm in the Apple, the narrator presents to us The Crutchmans--a typical Cheeveresque family, of whom the narrator says:

    The Crutchmans were so very, very happy and so temperate in all their habits and so pleased with
    everything that came their way that one was bound to suspect a worm in their rosy apple and that
    the extraordinary rosiness of the fruit was only meant to conceal the gravity and depth of the

In the ensuing pages we are treated to a guided tour of their complacent middle class lives, all the while expecting the hammer to fall and the worm to be exposed.  But at the end of the story they still seem to be exactly what they originally appeared to be, a boring happy family:

    With their own dear children gone away the Crutchmans might be expected to suffer the celebrated
    spiritual destitution of their age and their kind--the worm in the apple would at last be laid
    bare--although watching this charming couple as they entertained their friends or read the books
    they enjoyed one might wonder if the worm was not in the eye of the observer who, through
    timidity or moral cowardice, could not embrace the broad range of their natural enthusiasms and
    would not grant that, while Larry played neither Bach nor football very well, his pleasure in both
    was genuine.  You might at least expect to see in them the usual destructiveness of time, but either
    through luck or as a result of their temperate and healthy lives they has lost neither their teeth nor
    their hair.  The touchstone of their euphoria remained potent, and while Larry gave up the fire
    truck he could still be seen at the communion rail, the fifty-yard line, the 8:03, and the Chamber
    Music Club, and through the prudence and shrewdness of Helen's broker they got richer and richer
    and richer and lived happily, happily, happily, happily.

I realize that by the time you get to the fourth successive "happily" there, you're inclined to assume he's being facetious.  If so, he really is asking us to look at these mundane but happy lives and be repelled by them, as if the "normal" or "run of the mill" existence were something horrifying and our guide is Mr. Kurtz (see Orrin's review of Heart of Darkness).  This just strikes me as too monstrously condescending on his part, not to mention extravagantly wrongheaded.  The more charitable reading is that he's expressing genuine doubt about his own inclination to assume there's a worm.  In that sense the story really works to subvert the message of the rest of his oeuvre and much of the fiction and the attitudes of his peers.  For me, this one story makes the collection worthwhile, while also mitigating strongly against any chance of my hacking my way through the other 800 pages of the book.


Grade: (C+)


John Cheever Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA:John Cheever
    -REVIEW ESSAY: THE LATE-SUMMER MELANCHOLY OF ‘THE SWIMMER’: John Cheever's story is the perfect thing to read as August nears its end (Nick Ripatrazone, 8/22//22, Gawker)

Book-related and General Links:
    -John Cheever (1912-1982)(kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "john cheever"
    -Julie and Janet's Page on John Cheever
    -ESSAY: John Cheever and Indirection (Rick Moody, Conjunctions)
    -ESSAY: John Cheever: Parody and The Suburban Aesthetic (John Dyer)
    -ESSAY: PERSONAL BEST:   "  T h e   S w i m m e r  "   b y   J o h n   C h e e v e r (MICHAEL CHABON, Salon)
    -ESSAY:  Saul Bellow: On John Cheever, NY Review of Books
    -ESSAY: Position Paper on "Goodbye, My Brother"
    -ESSAY: Addiction in John Cheever's "The Enormous Radio"   (Dr. Clifton Snider, Sample Story Analysis)
    -REMARKS: Brokenness: on form and the short story (Paul Lisicky, Blithe House Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: WRITERS AND ALCOHOL  (Ann Waldron, The Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: ONE TOO MANY FOR THE MUSE (J. Anthony Lukas, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: YADDO  (JEAN NATHAN, NY Times Book Review)
    -LINKS:  John Cheever   (1912-1982) (Bedford/St. Martins, Lit Links)
    -LINKS: American Modernism
    -REVIEW: Robert Towers: Light Touch, NY Review of Books
        The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever
    -REVIEW: Elizabeth Hardwick: The Family Way, NY Review of Books
        The Wapshot Scandal by John Cheever
    -REVIEW: Frederick C. Crews: Domestic Manners, NY Review of Books
        Drive, He Said by Jeremy Larner
        Teeth, Dying And Other Matters by Richard G. Stern
        The Brigadier and the Golf Widow by John Cheever
    -REVIEW: Thomas R. Edwards: Surprise, Surprise, NY Review of Books
        The World of Apples by John Cheever
        People Will Always Be Kind by Wilfrid Sheed
        Points for a Compass Rose by Evan S. Connell, Jr.
    -REVIEW: Robert Towers: Up the River, NY Review of Books
        Falconer by John Cheever
        A Place to Come To by Robert Penn Warren
    -REVIEW: of THE JOURNALS OF JOHN CHEEVER By John Cheever (Mary Gordon, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Journals of John Cheever Edited by Robert Gottlieb (HERBERT MITGANG, NY times)
    -REVIEW: of The Letters of John Cheever Edited by Benjamin Cheever (JOHN GROSS, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF JOHN CHEEVER Edited by Benjamin Cheever (Robert Kiely, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of OH WHAT A PARADISE IT SEEMS By John Cheever (John Leonard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of OH WHAT A PARADISE IT SEEMS By John Cheever (Anatole Broyard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THIRTEEN UNCOLLECTED STORIES BY JOHN CHEEVER Edited by Franklin H. Dennis (Sven Birkerts, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Elizabeth Hardwick: Cheever, or The Ambiguities, NY Review of Books
        Home Before Dark by Susan Cheever
    -REVIEW: of  HOME BEFORE DARK. By Susan Cheever (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY times)
    -REVIEW: of TREETOPS A Family Memoir. By Susan Cheever (Jane Smiley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of JOHN CHEEVER A Biography. By Scott Donaldson (Lorrie Moore, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of John Cheever A Biography By Scott Donaldson  (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: Cheever's Widow Suing to Stop Publication of Story Collection (HERBERT MITGANG, NY times)
    -REVIEW: of  UNCOLLECTING CHEEVER The Family of John Cheever vs. Academy Chicago Publishers (Richard Dooling, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of UNCOLLECTING CHEEVER.   [ The Family of John Cheever vs. Academy Chicago Publishers ] by  ANITA MILLER (Peter Kurth, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Uncollecting Cheever (Dave Reid, Foreword Magazine)

    -LINKS: American Writers and Their Works: The 20th Century