The Cheever Revival
Six weeks before his death in 1982, John Cheever received the National Medal for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. For Cheever, the prize was but the most glorious of a recent string of glories: in 1977, he appeared on the cover of Newsweek, which pronounced Falconer “A Great American Novel,” and his Pulitzer-winning 1978 collection, The Stories of John Cheever, remained on the New York Times’ bestseller list for months.
In the years since, Cheever’s family life has received more attention than his work. When newspapers and magazines round up the star ponies of American fiction, Cheever is rarely part of the herd. Though a few of his stories remain anthology standbys, his work is rarely taught in schools, and few young writers, even those who, like Cheever, work in the twilight world between realism and the surreal, cite him as an influence.
But a Cheever revival, heralded by Blake Bailey’s biography as well as the Library America editions of his stories and novels, may be on the horizon. It’s not the first: Paul Gray, reviewing The Stories of John Cheever for Time Magazine in 1978, insisted that the stories of Cheever, who, after his 1969 novel Bullet Park was poorly reviewed, produced little new work for several years, were “almost always better than people remember.” Together, the stories constituted “one of the most important bodies of work in contemporary letters”; it was time, Gray wrote, for a “defense” of Cheever.
Cheever is an author who is not simply forgotten but subject to mischaracterization, his fiction accused of crimes from which his admirers must exonerate him. A “defense” of Cheever requires protecting him from those who sought to praise him. He was, and is, called a satirist, a social critic whose stories unearth the soiled hypocrisies of middle-class suburbia. But Cheever himself disavowed this title -- “life can be as good and rich there as anyplace else. I am not out to be a social critic,” he wrote -- and many of his most cutting stories are satires of satire, in which Cheever lampoons not only his characters but his readers as well. Think of “The Sorrows of Gin,” in which the child who, in the hands of another writer, might function simply as a clear-eyed witness of adulthood’s hypocrisies and deceptions and thus as a comfortable stand-in for the reader. But Amy Lawton is sullen, selfish, and as hypocritical as her parents; the world is more complicated than she, or the smug satirist, imagines.
Cheever’s impatience with readers’ appetite for satire -- for the recapitulation of certain bleak attitudes about a world to which they, because capable of identifying its faults, are necessarily superior -- dominates “The Worm in the Apple.” The Crutchmans, residents of Shady Hill, were “very, very happy”; because they were happy, “one was bound to suspect a worm in their rosy apple.” The potential worms -- money troubles, promiscuous children -- are identified and discarded. The marriage is peaceful! The family is content! The worm festers in “the eye of the observer,” whose expectation that happiness is always a mask and misery the true face of the world precludes genuine engagement with life, or fiction, itself.
A number of Cheever’s stories feature characters who themselves are sloppy readers, a strain that finds its epitome in Lawrence Pommeroy of “Goodbye, My Brother.” Lawrence, known magnificently as “Tifty,” is the black sheep of the family. Tifty is estranged from his family largely for aesthetic reasons, though neither he nor the narrator acknowledges them as such: Tifty has forsaken the cold, luxurious charms of wealth and New England; he has forsaken his family, Yale, “a good job,” the Episcopal Church, and finally the middle class. With his wife he moved to “a back street in Tuckahoe,” and from there to the dry, brown center of the country: Illinois, Kansas, Ohio. Visiting the other Pommeroys in Maine, Tifty interprets the house, with its antique shingles and artificially-aged doors, as a symbol for the family’s failures. Unable to cope with the present, he says, they retreat into a reconstruction of the past, a carnival of pleasures that distracts them from the black, brutal truth of existence.
Many of Tifty’s accusations, however, go unspoken, imagined instead by the narrator -- I could tell Tifty was thinking this, I could tell Tifty was angry about that. The narrator, therefore, is accuser and defender both; voiced by one character, the family’s failures and their exultant celebration despite these failures are presented as equally valid. We deceive ourselves, it’s true, but just as true are the good moments: the vast ocean, the naked women who emerge from its waters “full of grace,” and all “the harsh surface beauty of life.”
This is the other charge against which Cheever must be defended: that he is too much, as he himself put it, a “defender” of the suburban lifestyle. Cynthia Ozick, in her 1964 review of The Wapshot Chronicle, dismissed him as a minor writer concerned only with “vapid dreams and pageants of desire." Unable to move beyond superficial pleasures, he offered up shallow palliatives about and for the commuting classes.
Both interpretations of Cheever hinge on the assumption that he is, or ought to be, the bearer of bad news: he either succeeds because he condemns society, or fails because he does not. But the bad news is old news. Both judgments demonstrate a desire that his work confirm, rather than surprise, the reader’s assumptions about the world.
Furthermore, both readings of Cheever cast him as a writer concerned with a particular swath of society, and one whose goal, whether it is to deflate or celebrate, requires him to define the habits and rites of a particular class of individuals and to speak generally about what it meant to live in a certain country at a certain time.
Cheever’s stories, however, are at once grander than this -- modern myths, in which the jealous gods are now jealous neighbors -- and narrower. He is not concerned with lifestyles, or even lives, but moments of life. Cheever is a master of the present tense, and often, within stories set in the past, slides into the present moment. “The Country Husband” contains two such passages, one at the beginning that documents a fractious family supper, and another, the famous final section that ends, ecstatically, “it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” This grammatical echo binds together domestic drudgery and the near-mythic glory of the evening: because they are not part of the past in which the rest of the story unfolds, both scenes are at once ephemeral, a discrete and therefore finite moment in time, and eternal, the present tense lasting, on the page, perpetually into the future.
In “The Jewels of the Cabots,” Cheever asks if the choice to celebrate moments like those glorious elephant nights -- to detail the contours of the apple where the worm dwells -- is “an infirmity of the genteel or a conviction there are certain discernible moral truths.” The question is rhetorical. Aesthetics are ethics: “the harsh surface beauty of life” is a gift to us, one of unfathomable generosity, and one that ought to inspire in us benevolence no less substantial. There are good things in the world, and in other people. Cheever’s use of the word “grace” in the final sentence of “Goodbye, My Brother” is key: beauty is grace, and makes us capable of grace, or forgiveness, ourselves.
The Tifties of the world, those who believe that life is suffering, are, even when this philosophy is informed by a generosity of vision -- by a genuine ache of sorrow at the sorrows of others -- narcissists, who weave the world from their own experiences. “Disappointed in themselves,” laments the narrator of “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” these sentimentalists end up “disappointed in others”: their focus is not their pain, or the pain of others, but simply pain, a fog of sorrow detached from its human source.
The automatic, Tifty-esque rejection of beauty is, for Cheever, as shallow and lazy and deceptive as false optimism. To assume that happiness is simply a mask for sadness is to reduce the world to a facile code, one that subsumes the peculiarities and possibilities of individual experience and, every time it is deciphered, says only the same thing: the world is rotten, and for knowing this you are better than it. Anyone can do a line drawing, the flat squiggle of the wretched worm, but Cheever’s vision is fuller than this, concerned as he is with the whole round shape of the apple where we, worms all, are lucky to live our lives.