“She perceived vaguely the pitiful corruption of the adult world; how cruel and frail it was, like a worn piece of burlap, patched with stupidities and mistakes, useless and ugly, and yet they never saw its worthlessness.”
But, last night, after months of struggling to maintain interest, struggling to make time to squeeze a story or even two into my days, struggling to figure out why I should care about any of these stories, I finally finished it.
Then, today at work, while I served gourmet coffee to incredibly rich, incredibly obnoxious, incredibly white people—the self-righteous, over-privileged upper crust of middle class Suburbia—for twelve hours, I suddenly got it: these are the people Cheever was railing against.
And that’s about the time I gained a sense of respect for John Cheever.
Let’s get something straight—I was not born into privilege. I didn’t come into this world with a silver spoon in my mouth. Nobody in my family is wealthy; in fact, we’re all fairly poor. As if that wasn’t hard enough to believe, I’m not middle-aged, I’m not upper-middle-class, and, for the most part, my life isn’t falling to pieces. Here are some other things that set me apart from the characters in John Cheever’s stories—I’ve never murdered my brother; I’ve never hired a personal assistant, had sex with her, then immediately fired her; I’ve never accidentally killed my husband; I’ve never cheated on my wife; I’ve never cheated on my wife who was cheating on me at the same time; and I’ve never gotten drunk and gone swimming in every swimming pool at every party I’ve gone to, only to return home to find that my entire family had abandoned me.
So, needless to say, I didn’t really connect with anything he had to say while I was reading through his stories. I didn’t identify with them.
Another reason I couldn’t identify with these stories was because of how depressing they all were. How insanely, incredibly, indescribably depressing they all were. Cheever, in every single story, does not convey any glimmer of hope, any note of positivity—instead, Cheever paints a portrait of “family values” coming apart at the seams. And, in the process, he paints a portrait of the American family as it really is—bewildered, dysfunctional, and, when it comes right down to it, corrupt.
There are a couple of things that need to be understood first to understand why The Stories of John Cheever was such a great success (it won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same year, the only book in history to do so): first of all, John Cheever was a very active closet homosexual who was battling alcoholism and depression. He felt trapped by a world he didn’t feel a part of:
I think of the enormous contribution Verdi made to the life of the planet and the enormous cooperation he was given by orchestras and singers… And I think of what an enormous opportunity is to be a live on this planet. having myself been cold and hungry and terribly alone I think I still feel the excitement of that opportunity. The sense of being with some sleeping person—one’s child or one’s lover—and seeming to taste the privilege of living, of being alive. Since I know so much about incarceration and addiction why can’t I write about it? All I seem to be able to do is howl; let out… I am both a prisoner and an addict. – from The Journals of John Cheever
His stories, it is plain to tell, are merely an extension of his personal life. The reason his writing is so irrevocably depressing is because it’s so real—these weren’t purely fictional stories, they were pages from his real life.
The second important thing that needs to be understood to understand the reason The Stories of John Cheever was so influential is the time during which these stories were written: from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. Nowadays, we look back on the 1950’s as the time of pink sweaters and poodle skirts, Leave It to Beaver and Andy Griffith, and mothers railing against Elvis Presley and his gyrating hips. This post-war society brought family values to the forefront, but as we now know, this was mostly a facade to hide the fear and paranoia brought on by the Cold War. The American glory days that were the 1950’s were nothing more than an elaborate show that masked society.
Cheever, on the other hand, was unmasking that society and exposing it for what it really was. Besides J.D. Salinger, nobody else was doing this at the time. Furthermore, Cheever was in a class all his own, because even though Salinger had written The Catcher In the Rye, he didn’t achieve nearly the success with it that Cheever was having with his short stories that were being published on a very regular basis in The New Yorker. Not only was Cheever running an exposé of real life American culture—which must have been a complete shock to his readership (come on—you can’t tell me that a generation of parents who were freaking out over Elvis Presley’s hips on The Ed Sullivan Show weren’t being completely shell-shocked by stories of murder, rape, alcoholism, and infidelity)—but he was even having success doing it!
This, of course, is a testament to John Cheever’s unique ability as a writer—he slapped you in the face, but he did so in a way that made you respect him as an artist.
Now, as much as I have to say about this collection of short stories, I really don’t feel like anything I could say could really equate with this review by Jason Pettus that I found on the website for the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Pettus also tweeted his progress through The Stories at goodreads.com with mini-reviews that I found enlightening.
So, instead, to close out, I’m going to simply list the stories that I enjoyed the most:
“Goodbye, My Brother”
“The Enormous Radio”
“Clancy In the Tower of Babel”
“The Death of Justina”
“Artemis, the Honest Well Digger”
One final word on this collection—be sure to spread the stories apart while reading them. As I’ve made clear, they are incredibly depressing, but Cheever’s writing is also very dense. It is really easy to feel overwhelmed by both of these factors and give up on the collection all together. But don’t let the girth of this book deter you—you may resent the journey of reading every story, but you’ll be thankful for the accomplishment of having reached your destination.