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The Stories of John Cheever

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jun 11, 2012
Category: Fiction

Proof that the sand really does go more quickly the closer you get to the bottom of the hourglass is the date of my New York Times Magazine profile of John Cheever. 

Seems like just a few years ago that his collected stories were published and I set out to write about him.

But it was 1979.

When I interviewed Cheever, he was a youthful, wiry 67.

But we recently marked what would have been his hundredth birthday.

Of the many profiles I’ve written, why is my Cheever piece still so vivid for me? The answer has less to do with the man than with his work. That summer, I’d rented a cheap house in Southampton. In the mornings, I sat in the yard and read Cheever. In the afternoons, I read him on the beach. It took a week to polish off the 700 pages of his stories.

I followed that delicious, once-in-a-lifetime experience with an afternoon at Cheever’s house in Westchester. He liked to bicycle each morning, so we saddled up and rode around his neighborhood (“Peter Frampton lives there”), and then, over iced tea, we sat and talked on the porch.

Cheever gave good interview (“What did I learn from Ernest Hemingway? Not to put a shotgun in my mouth”). Not surprising; some writers are great talkers. Cheever had another reason to be extravagantly quotable — he was afraid I’d learn that he was bi-sexual and include that in my piece. In 1979, that would have been a career-ender for a literary titan of Cheever’s generation.

Cheever need not have worried. I suspected nothing and heard no gossip — I was too busy being dazzled by his stories. “The American Chekhov,” the shorthand had it. Yes, in the sense that Cheever, like Chekhov, could take even the smallest moment and turn it into material. But that description seemed unhelpful, because Cheever was so completely American — so completely New England, really.

Cheever wrote many of these stories in the storage room of his New York apartment. In the morning, he’d dress as if he were going to an office, but he rode the elevator down to the basement, where he’d hang up his suit pants and start writing. Some days he’d get all the way to the end of a story; every night, he’d kill a bottle of liquor. Ah, the 1950s….

There are Cheever stories you’ve probably read in school: “The Swimmer” and “The Enormous Radio." [To read "The Swimmer," click here. To hear Cheever read "The Swimmer," click here.] There are stories — like “The Hartleys” — that you wouldn’t have loved when you were younger but are oh-so-meaningful now. And there are stories that will make you feel as if you’re reading about the characters in "Mad Men." [To buy “The Stories of John Cheever” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

If you want to audition Cheever, seek out the first story in the book: “Goodbye, My Brother”. It’s about a WASP family with one of those big houses on the bluffs of Nantucket. The family’s three grown sons, a daughter, a mother, various spouses and kids have assembled for a late-summer vacation. Swimming, drinking, family dinners, club dances, game nights at home: This reunion should look like a Ralph Lauren commercial. Why it doesn’t: Lawrence — the youngest brother, the one who “looks like a Puritan cleric” — has arrived.

We all know people like Lawrence, people who try “to spoil every pleasure.” We endure them because we don’t see much of them. But to share a house with Lawrence, to have your two weeks of vacation darkened by his omnipresent scowl — it drives the narrator, an otherwise mild-mannered high school teacher, to spill the blood of his blood.

Lawrence departs in a huff on a gorgeous late-summer morning — not that, from the ferry, he’d see its beauty. And the narrator? The ending of his relationship with his brother is inspiration for a final look at much more than a family drama. Here’s the last paragraph:

Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eyes in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming — Diana and Helen — and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. 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.

I ask you: Is not that one of the most beautiful pieces of writing you’ve ever read?