edited by Blake Baily
We all know suburbs are miserable places, full of out-of-touch white people who are too lazy or too scared to deviate from the status quo. At a certain point in their lives, usually at the point when it’s time to start a family, people with the means to do so move away from the thrill of city life to culs-de-sac and lawnmowers. There they think they’ll find security, a calm happiness, that elusive “American Dream.” Sure, they’ll be able to lie to themselves and their neighbors for a few years that everything on the inside is as happy as the façade, but the delusion eventually leads to misery, anger, and alcoholism.
…Is any of this news? Twenty years after Blue Velvet, and a few months after Revolutionary Road became a Leonardo DiCaprio movie, hasn’t the suburban-misery angle been done to death?
Yes, but that doesn’t make reading John Cheever’s stories, recently republished by the Library of America, any less of a treat. In the introduction to his 1978 collection, reprinted here, Cheever recalls a doorman – a vocation featured in two of his earlier stories – and says he “seems a figure from the enduring past.” If Cheever was already characterizing the world of his stories as a relic in 1978, by 2009 they’ve become works of fantasy even more than nostalgia.
In many ways, it’s a perverse sort-of fantasy. Cheever’s world is one of cliché: unhappy suburbanites, upper-class adults who commute between Westchester and New York City, suburbanites who drink too much. (The Library of America isn’t afraid to play into these surface features regarding Cheever’s work: The cover image is a photograph of the author standing in front of a depot, presumably on the Hudson commuter line.)
Cheever knew what his focus was, even titling his first, largely forgotten, collection (included here) The Way Some People Live. These “Some People” are the aforementioned wealthy types, and the heart of Cheever’s life work. Yet at the same time, this designation lends that class an air of distance, exoticism.
And that’s why the mid-century suburban saga never goes out of style. It’s difficult not to think fondly of this romantically appealing world. Parents have parties instead of zoning out in front of the TV. Adults drink complicated cocktails instead of six-packs of Bud. And then there are the names: Trace Bearden! Cash Bently! If the Library of America were really smart, they’d be running ads for this collection during Mad Men.
|As Cheever directs us to look at the pain and misery, one’s just as apt to become distracted by the thought, “Man, people could party back then.” Who wouldn’t want to attend a social gathering where one of the guests, attempting to relive past track glories, hurdles over the furniture, as does the protagonist of “O Youth and Beauty”? Or, there’s this description of a party from the first story in the collection, “Goodbye My Brother”:
Sign me up! Of course, as we fall into the trap of idolizing the surface features of this world, instead of studying the heart beneath, we’re guilty of the same culpability as the characters themselves. But at least it’s culpability by proxy.
The span of Cheever’s career, as shown through these stories, mimics a typical adult lifetime of his characters. In the earlier stories, the characters don’t live in the suburbs at all, but rather are young couples residing in New York City. Already, though, Cheever’s main theme of the unhappiness lying beneath is established, most famously in The Enormous Radio, in which a radio is able to pick up on the dirty secrets every apartment holds (a story that gets both its fame and limitations from being high-concept).
These characters’ futures are pre-ordained, though. As one observes in “The Pot of Gold,”
The guests of the party were the survivors of a group that had coalesced ten years before, and if anyone had called the roll of the earliest parties in the same room, like the retreat ceremony of a breached and decimated regiment, ‘Missing…Missing…Missing’ would have been answer for the squad that had gone into Westchester; “Missing…Missing…Missing” would have been spoken for the platoon that divorce, drink, nervous disorders, and adversity had slain or wounded.
Before we follow the first group north along the Hudson for the bulk of his stories, Cheever must account for the second. A surprising discovery when re-reading these early stories is how many of them feature working class people. So, we have the young couple right off the train from the Midwest, naïve enough to think that when an agent promises to sell your play, you should believe him. (“The Pot of Gold”) Plus, not one but two stories, following one right after the other, star down-home, white-ethnic elevator operators.
Cheever is also highly aware of class distinctions, as are his characters, who understand the rules of the world in which they live with a confidence lacking in the current American middle class. This is a world in which narrators have easy access to the word “sumptuary.” Even those who come out on the losing side of the class war aren’t afraid to make judgments, since the rules offer security in their certainty, no matter where you fall; observes the title character of “The Superintendent,”
Her unhappiness at that moment, Chester knew, was more than the unhappiness of leaving a place that seemed familiar for one that seemed strange; it was the pain of leaving the place where her accent and her looks, her worn suit and her diamond rings could still command a trace of respect; it was the pain of parting from one class and going into another, and it was doubly painful because it was a parting that would never be completed. Somewhere in Pelham she would find a neighbor who had been to Farmingdale or wherever it was; she would find a friend with diamonds as big as filberts and holes in her gloves.
These lower-class sad sacks are forgotten, though, as children grow past toddling age and the city is left to the young. Proving that he knew nothing if not the well-selected title, Cheever’s third collection was The Housebreaker of Shady Hill. Housebreak: not only is there a story about a man who robs his neighbors, but families are fracturing all over the Westchester town of Shady Hill. In a quasi-Winesburg move, Shady Hill is the setting of each story in this batch, and characters reappear across different stories, illuminating one of Cheever’s central tenets, which is that things look different, and much more depressing, from the inside.
Cheever’s strength is his ability to transform this familiar story into variations that complement but rarely repeat each other. His stories are the suburbs shot through a prism, so that each world commingles in the same spectrum – the Farquarsons throw repeated parties, and two stories in a row present the horrific conflict of a husband coming home to a wife who has not yet cooked dinner – but the worlds are not the same exact color. Cheever writes plenty of wailing women, wives whose emotional truths only seem able to be shared in moments that drive their husbands crazy. Women may howl in several different stories, but in one it’ll be about a husband’s refusal to pick up his laundry (“The Country Husband”), while in another, she’ll feel a pre-feminist longing to get out of the house.
In “The Season of Divorce,” the husband actually deigns to ask his wife why she’s crying:
“’Why do I cry? Why do I cry?’ she asked impatiently. ‘I cry because I saw an old woman cuffing a little boy on Third Avenue. She was drunk. I can’t get it out of my mind.’”
The vast majority of these stories are in the third person, but Cheever still gets to the heart of why these observed characters are the way they are, with moments that astound. Examples abound: in “The Summer Farmer,” a man buys a rabbit from a farmer who “spoke uneasily, as if he had wanted to keep the simple transaction from someone…As Paul turned the car back on to he road, they heard behind them a heartbroken shout. A boy ran from the house to the rabbit cage, and they saw the source of the farmer’s uneasiness.”
A surprising number of Cheever’s endings are happy: a man’s suicide seems inevitable, until his estranged wife calls for a reconciliation at the last moment (“The Cure”); a man is driven to his knees by a former mistress with a gun, but instead of shooting him she simply walks away (“The Five-Forty-Eight”) [that second one is not exactly happy...]. Other endings, though, are ambiguous and touching, that intangible flourish that makes one think, upon finishing, that one has read something great: Of course, there’s the mysterious ending of “The Swimmer,” in which the protagonist’s destination turns out to be not a home at all, but there’s also “The Hartleys,” where a bickering couple gears up for an all-night drive behind the hearse carrying their young daughter, and “Goodbye, My Brother,” which ends with the line, “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.” You could explain that ending as metaphor for the narrator’s unashamed, unadorned happiness with his life, which his brother can’t ever understand – or you could just let the line wash over yourself, like the sea.
That’s why Cheever’s stories transcend the narrow confines of the world they depict, even though he was instrumental in establishing them as clichés in the first place.
It has become fashionable this year to decry the relative lack of attention on John Cheever, to lament that his name isn’t immediately mentioned in the same breath as his mid-century contemporaries. This comparative obscurity is surprising considering that Cheever’s stories appeared 121 times in The New Yorker between 1935 and 1967 (illuminating for those who think the magazine’s insistence in publishing the same five authors is a new development). Cheever deserves such accolades – the new publication is justified simply as a remedy to the oversight of Cheever not having a Library of America title, even after 191 other works by other authors do – but there’s a tidy coincidence regarding this fad: someone currently has something to sell. In this case, Blake Bailey, whose thorough Cheever biography coincides with the publication of this Library of America collection, for which he also wrote the chronology and notes.
A comprehensive anthology of Cheever’s work was published in 1978. That book won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; the New York Times called it “Not merely the publishing event of the ‘season’ but a grand occasion in English literature.” That collection is also still in print, wonderfully designed, and available at any bookstore for half the price of the Library of America edition. The lion’s share of John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings is lifted, sequentially and transparently, from the 1978 edition. The reader is presented with a few other pieces, including stories from Cheever’s first collection that he was so embarrassed about he prevented their inclusion in the original anthology, as well as a chronology and notes on the text. As befitting the Library of America, it is a beautiful publication, but these additions to the 1978 collection are not really necessary to understanding Cheever’s life’s work. Deciding between the two could come down to the serious Cheever follower vs. the reader with a casual interest.
Of course, any opportunity, no matter what form, for readers to discover Cheever’s works is well-warranted. One can only hope that this new collection gives him that wider audience. By reading him, you can see how much he – and his characters – had going on behind the martinis and the manicured lawns. Or you can just enjoy it for that stuff, too.
Christen Enos lives and teaches in Boston. Raised in Massachusetts, she studied film as an undergraduate at NYU, and received her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. In a past life, she worked as a CBS casting assistant and as a receptionist at a celebrity PR firm. Her work has also appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Orleans Review, Quick Fiction, The Portland Review, and Natural Bridge.