The Stories of John Cheever
by John Cheever
Knopf, 693 pp., $15.00
For years many of us have gone around with bits and pieces of John Cheever stories lodged in our minds—oddities of character or situation, brief encounters, barely remembered passages of special poignancy or beauty. But unless we have had access to a complete file of old New Yorkers or were provident enough to buy the collections of stories as they appeared, we have lacked a context for these fragments. A few stories (“Torch Song,” “The Swimmer”) have been widely anthologized, while the rest have remained in a kind of literary limbo: valued in recollection, known to exist, but difficult to reach. Though Cheever has been among the handful of contemporary writers who have sharpened our awareness and added to our arsenal of allusion, the individual volumes of his stories have been hard to come by, even in ordinarily well-stocked libraries. The success of Falconer has changed all that. Now we have this fat and weighty volume—sixty-one stories in all—and it comes like a splendid gift.
A reading of the entire collection usefully corrected certain misconceptions of mine that had grown up over the years. Influenced no doubt by the popularity of “The Swimmer” and by the four novels, I had come to think of Cheever’s work as far more surrealistic and bizarrely plotted than it turns out to be. Of the sixteen or so stories that seem to me clearly first-rate (a high percentage, given the size of the oeuvre), twelve are distinctly within the bounds of realism, observing the conventions of causality, chronology, and verisimilitude, with no untoward intrusions of the arbitrary or the fantastic.
Though Cheever disclaims a documentary purpose and (rightly) resents comparison to a social nit-picker like the later John O’Hara, his stories do have a powerful documentary interest—and why not? Documentation of the way we—or some of us—live now has been historically one of those enriching impurities of fiction that only a mad theorist would wish to filter out. Less grand than Auchincloss, subtler and cleverer than Marquand, infinitely more generous than O’Hara, Cheever has written better than anyone else of that little world which upper-middle-class Protestants have contrived to maintain in their East Side apartments, in certain suburbs, in summer cottages on Nantucket, in Adirondack lodges, on New England farms. Servants are surely scarcer than when Cheever’s early stories appeared, but otherwise the little world is fairly intact—a world of doormen and elevator men, of private schools, of riding lessons, skiing lessons, sailing classes, dancing classes, of cocktail parties, dinner parties, and church on Sunday.
While still influential far beyond its numbers, this world has undergone a loss of moral confidence that is clearly fascinating to Cheever. Its (generally) well-mannered inhabitants are nostalgic for—and pay lip service to—what one character describes as “the boarding-school virtues: courage, good sportsmanship, chastity, and honor,” but they are constantly imperiled by alcohol, adultery, and the corrosive effects of disappointment. In that very moving story of …