My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Stories of John Cheever (1978) by John Cheever is a collection of 61 stories that won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1979.
As expected, “The Enormous Radio” (pg 33) and “The Swimmer” (pg 603), two of Cheever’s most popular and most read stories, are included in this 693-page book, but other lesser-known and more obscure stories (showcasing Cheever at his best) appear and often keep the pages turning. For example: “The Pot of Gold” (pg 103); “The Cure” (pg 156); “The Country Husband” (pg 325); “The Golden Age” (pg 396); “The Death of Justina” (pg 429); “Boy in Rome” (pg 452); “The World of Apples” (pg 613); “Another Story” (pg 624); “Percy” (pg 634); and, “Artemis, the Honest Well Digger” (pg 650).
Even Cheever in his short story “The Death of Justina” offers advice to writers (and readers) about the art of fiction and writing stories:
“Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing” (pg 429).
Cheever’s stories do come to something, and together these stories represent fiction as art.
Cheever doesn’t shy away from controversial topics either. He takes a stand and proclaims it boldly; for better or worse, he makes his points clear regarding his views on fiction as art, and he even has a few things to say about certain characters writers should choose to write (or not to write) about:
“(5) Out they go, male and female, all the lushes; they throw so little true light on the way we live.
“(6) And while we are about it, out go all those homosexuals who have taken such a dominating position in recent fiction. Isn’t it time that we embraced the indiscretion and inconstancy of the flesh and moved on?” (from “Characters that Will Not Appear,” pg 469).
See, Cheever knew then what amateur and professional writers still fail to understand today. Certain issues are temporal and uninspiring. Certain issues fail to reveal the humanity that appeals to readers across the world in every language and every culture. Certain issues fail to hold the interests of “evolved” adults. Sure, you can write about anything you want (who can’t?), but the best writers do have a choice to seek out storytelling as an artform to showcase humanity (this being our emotions, aspirations, our souls and not the color of our faces, our sexual preferences, our nationalities, how we may choose to identify or how we want the world to identify with us—issues of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, and identity are all themes for children and young adults and have their places in literature for students in elementary schools and high schools) and the best writers who fully grasp the notions of fiction as art are going to stand the tests of time, culture, fads, political regimes, and momentary popular interests of all various shapes and sizes.
From Cheever’s “The Common Day,” Cheever illustrates how “humanity” can shape literature into an artform by displaying people (not “races,” but “souls”) as they live out even a perfunctory life:
“Agnes Shay had the true spirit of a maid. Moistened with dishwater and mild eau de cologne, reared in narrow and sunless bedrooms, in back passages, back stairs, laundries, linen closets, and in those servants’ halls that remind one of a prison, her soul had grown docile and bleak. The ranks of service appeared to her as just and inflexible as the rings of hell. She would no more have yielded Mrs. Garrison a place at the servants’ table in the kitchen than Mrs. Garrison would have yielded her one in the gloomy dining room…
“On fine evenings, when she sat on the back porch between the garbage pails and the woodbins, she liked to recall the faces of all the cooks she had known. It made her life seem rich” (pg 25).
So what race is Agnes? What is the color of her skin? What country does she come from? Does it matter?
I would say that it does not, because the “humanity” and the “soul” are ever present and one can almost taste the personality and the aspirations of this commonly maid who is just as stubborn as all those amateur writers who try to force high school themes onto well-educated adults.
Another moment then from Cheever (since you aren’t convinced yet about “humanity” and the “soul”). This snippet comes from Cheever’s “O City of Broken Dreams”:
“Their child slept with her thumb in her mouth. Her hair was dark and her dirty face was lean, like her mother’s. When a violent movement of the train roused her, she drew noisily at her thumb until she lost consciousness again. She had been unable to store up as much finery as her parents, since she was only five years old, but she wore a white fur coat. The matching hat and muff had been lost generations before; the skins of the coat were sere and worn, but as she slept, she stroked them, as if they had remarkable properties that assured her that all was well, all was well” (pg 43).
One who is a parent can see and almost touch her own child sleeping. This is what Cheever does best: bring humanity and the soul to the page. He asks you to stop thinking about all the political issues, to stop thinking about your identity (after all, the only ones who care about identity and race are the ones who care about identity and race), and Cheever asks you to stop and stare at this sleeping little babe and be reminded about what it means to be a child once again in the arms of your mother or what it means to be a father holding your son for the first time.
And what of emotions? Cheever will give you every last one, and there’s no doubt he has intensely studied them all.
From “The Sutton Place Story,” the reader can feel the drama, the weight of the soul in turmoil, come to life and weigh on them just as heavily as on the characters on the page:
“‘I feel filthy with guilt. I feel as though I’d been a rotten mother and a rotten wife and as though this were punishment. I’ve broken every vow and every promise that I’ve ever made. I’ve broken all the good promises. When I was a little girl, I used to make promises on the new moon and the first snow. I’ve broken everything good. But I’m talking as though we’d lost her, and we haven’t lost her, have we? They’ll find her, the policeman said they’d find her.’
“‘They’ll find her,’ Robert said.
“The room darkened. The low clouds had touched the city. They could hear the rain as it fell against the building and the windows” (pg 76).
Cheever knows what touches the hearts of men and women and he knows the issues that befall us all (as human beings and not as a specific race, which causes division over unity).
In “The Summer Farmer,” Cheever asks us to look closer at the people (of all colors, of all nationalities, of all sexual preferences) and he asks us to consider the weights that each of us carries within:
“It is true of even the best of us that if an observer can catch us boarding a train at a way station; if he will mark our faces, stripped by anxiety of their self-possession; if he will appreciate our luggage, our clothing, and look out of the window to see who has driven us to the station; if he will listen to the harsh or tender things we say if we are with our families, or notice the way we put our suitcase onto the rack, check the position of our wallet, our key ring, and wipe the sweat off the back of our necks; if he can judge sensibly the self-importance, diffidence, or sadness with which we settle ourselves, he will be given a broader view of our lives than most of us would intend” (pg 88).
In “Percy,” Cheever reminds us that our humanity is closely tied to the sea:
“Since the sea is our most universal symbol for memory, might there not be some mysterious affinity between these published recollections and the thunder of waves” (pg 634).
Cheever does have a way with words, and that is why people are still reading his short stories and his novels. Even love is fair game for Cheever and he makes it as though time can be stopped in its falling sands.
In “The Bus to St. James’s,” Cheever considers the very best parts of our humanity: love, tenderness, and hope:
“For lovers, touch is metamorphosis. All the parts of their bodies seem to change, and they seem to become something different and better. That part of their experience that is distinct and separate, the totality of the years before they met, is changed, is redirected toward this moment. They feel they have reached an identical point of intensity, an ecstasy of rightness that they command in every part, and any recollection that occurs to them takes on this final clarity, whether it be a sweep hand on an airport clock, a snow owl, a Chicago railroad station on Christmas Eve, or anchoring a yawl in a strange harbor while all along the stormy coast strangers are blowing their horns for the yacht-club tender, or running a ski trail at that hour when, although the sun is still in the sky, the north face of every mountain lies in the dark” (pg 279).
Yes, Cheever, yes; it is exactly like that. And in so many wordless ways, that is how it should be.
Without question, if you haven’t read The Stories of John Cheever, then put this old book on your new reading list. You’ll live a hundred lives while reading Cheever and when you’re done, you’ll walk away all that more enlightened and contented in a life you so often took for granted.
Keep reading and keep smiling…