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Light Touch

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 Upper East Side adultery called “The Bus to St. James’s,” Mr. Bruce goes to pick up his daughter from a riding lesson and observes the other parents waiting for their children. He is struck by the notion that he and they (“all cut out of the same cloth”) are “bewildered and confused in principle, too selfish or too unlucky to abide by the forms that guarantee the permanence of a society, as their fathers and mothers had done. Instead, they put the burden of order onto their children and filled their days with specious rites and ceremonies.”

Many of them lack an adequate financial base for their inherited or acquired style of living. The narrator of another fine story, “The Season for Divorce,” describes himself and his wife as both coming

from that enormous stratum of the middle class that is distinguished by its ability to recall better times. Lost money is so much a part of our lives that I am sometimes reminded of expatriates, of a group who have adapted themselves energetically to some alien soil but who are reminded, now and then, of the escarpments of their native coast.

Like so many of his nineteenth-century predecessors, Cheever is authoritative in his portrayal of the shabby genteel, of those who must resort to desperate contrivances to keep up appearances, to say nothing of advancing themselves in the world.

He is also wonderfully sensitive to the rhythms of family life within this class (“The Day the Pig Fell into the Well,” “The Country Husband”); to the asperities of fraternal relationships (“Goodbye, My Brother,” “The Summer Farmer”); to the decorum to be maintained in one’s dealing with in-laws and, by extension, with servants, babysitters, hired hands, and local inhabitants of a different class (“The Common Day,” “The Summer Farmer,” “The Day the Pig Fell into the Well”); and to the behavior of children disillusioned with their parents (“The Sorrows of Gin”). He catches not only the chronic irritations and disappointments but also the sudden upwelling of great tenderness and compassion.

Of course, Cheever, for all his fascination with manners, has never been primarily a documentary writer. His response to experience is essentially that of an old-fashioned lyric poet. In his preface to the new collection, he writes, “The constants that I look for in this sometimes dated paraphernalia are a love of light and a determination to trace some moral chain of being.” While one might question Cheever’s profundity as a moralist, there can be no doubt about his preoccupation with—and celebration of—the shifting powers of light. His stories are bathed in light, flooded with it; often his characters appear slightly drunk with it, their senses reeling.

Light, for Cheever, seems to have distinctly moral or religious properties. In the late story, “The World of Apples,” the octogenarian poet, Asa Bascomb, after a demoralizing onslaught of lewd fantasies, undergoes a ritual of purification, after which he experiences that “radiance he had known when he was younger.” He begins “a long poem on the inalienable dignity of light and air that, while it would not get him a Nobel Prize, would grace the last months of his life.” Light seems to be associated with a blessing, with a tender maternal smile fleetingly experienced, with all that is clean, tender, and guiltless, with the barely glimpsed immanence of God within His creation. At times Cheever appears to soar like Shelley’s skylark toward the source of light, a belated romantic beating his luminous wings in the void.

But while the lyric impulse sometimes leads him into a slight (and often endearing) silliness—“The light was like a blow, and the air smelled as if many wonderful girls had just wandered across the lawn”—he is for the most part a precisionist of the senses. Though his imagery of light has the strongest retinal impact, Cheever’s evocation of color and texture and smell is also vivid and persistent. He shares with two very different writers, Lawrence and Faulkner, an extraordinary ability to fix the sensory quality of a particular moment, a particular place, and to make it function not as embellishment but as an essential element in the lives and moods of his characters. Here are two young mothers, both married to less than successful husbands, in “the sorry and touching countryside of Central Park”:

The women talked principally about their husbands, and this was a game that Laura could play with an empty purse…. They sat together with their children through the sooty twilights, when the city to the south burns like a Bessemer furnace, and the air smells of coal, and the wet boulders shine like slag, and the Park itself seems like a strip of woods on the edge of a coal town.

The Pot of Gold”

And here is a sorely beset husband coming home to sick children:

It was impossible to ventilate or clean the house, and when I came in, after walking through the cold from the bus stop, it stank of cough syrups and tobacco, fruit cores and sickbeds.

The Season of Divorce”

It is in such passages as these that the genuinely poetic quality of Cheever’s fiction breaks through—far more than in those flashily “poetical” last sentences to which he is sometimes prone: “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” (“Goodbye, My Brother”). Or: “Then it is dark; it is night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains” (“The Country Husband”).

The introduction of an element of the weird into a densely realistic setting is an old trick of Cheever’s, going lack to his beginnings as a storyteller. Nowhere does it work better than in “The Enormous Radio,” where a Sutton Place apartment house is transformed into a rancorous hive of accusations and counteraccusations by a radio that mysteriously allows one of Cheever’s nice, upper-middle-class couples to eavesdrop upon conversations taking place throughout the building. The social texture is every bit as thick and as accurately rendered as in any of the realistic stories; the husband’s indictment of his wife, when at last the contagion spreads to the couple, is as grimly factual, as “class-specific,” as if magic had nothing to do with the situation. The stories in which the two elements are successfully interwoven are among Cheever’s most brilliant; they include not only the famous “Torch Song” and “The Swimmer” but also that superbly macabre piece, “The Music Teacher,” in which a husband, driven to despair by a chaotic household and regularly burned meals, resorts to an elderly piano teacher who has been recommended by a neighbor; she gives him a musical formula with which to tame his wife and then dies the ugly death of a witch. But on a re-reading they seem to me to veer toward slickness, to stand up less well than, say, a strongly felt and quietly impressive piece like “The Summer Farmer” or “The Bus to St. James’s.”

Cheever is a writer whose faults have an unusually close connection to his strengths. The imaginative identification with the upper-middle class which allows him to depict their mores and dilemmas with such vivacity entails a narrowness of social range and a sentimental snobbery which can get the best of him when his guard is down. Unlike Faulkner, whose Snopeses and Bundrages are as lovingly rendered as his Compsons, Cheever is not at ease when he enters the thoughts and feelings of one of those retainers—usually an Irish-Catholic—who service the elevators and the doors of the East Side apartment houses. In “Clancy in the Tower of Babel,” “Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor,” and “The Superintendent,” he settles for faintly embarrassing stereotypes of those workers while displaying his usual keenness of observation and sympathy for the apartment dwellers for whom they work. The absence of Jews in Cheever’s New York world is striking; at times it seems a deliberate avoidance, as in “Oh, City of Broken Dreams,” where a bus-driver-turned-playwright from Indiana is brought into a thicket of producers and theatrical agents of whom not even one has a Jewish name.

The most serious embarrassments occur when he attempts an identification with a really alien figure, as in “Clementina,” his story of a simple-hearted Italian girl who emigrates to America, or “Artemis, the Honest Well-Digger,” a late story in which he introduces a young digger of artesian wells to a sexually predatory matron of suburbia and then whisks him off on an implausible tour of Russia. His condescension to these characters is well meant, full of good will, and hard to swallow.

The snobbery is fairly innocent as snobberies go, attaching itself mostly to well-bred or even aristocratic ladies and causing little damage beyond a maudlin blurring of Cheever’s usually sharp vision. In “The Superintendent,” our sympathies (and the super’s) are unduly wrenched in behalf of nice Mrs. Bestwick, who wears diamonds as big as filberts but can no longer afford to live in her apartment, which is taken over by the hustling and rude upstart, Mrs. Negus. The snobbery is intensified in several of the stories with Italian settings, where there is a degree of sentimental obeisance to duchesses and broken-down marchesas, one of whom wears diamonds as big as acorns.

Cheever’s role as narrator is always obtrusive. He has, of course, never had any truck with the notion—once a dogma among certain academic critics—that an author should keep himself as invisible as possible, that he should show rather than tell. Cheever-as-narrator is regularly on stage, rejoicing in his own performance, commenting upon—often chatting about—his characters, dispatching them on missions, granting them reprieves or firmly settling their hash. At his most effective he can tell us things about a character with such authority that we never for a moment doubt that his comprehension is total, final:

The lackluster old woman—half between wakefulness and sleep—gathered together her bones and groped for her gray hair. It was in her nature to collect stray cats, pile the bathroom up to the ceiling with interesting and valuable newspapers, rouge, talk to herself, sleep in her underwear in case of fire, quarrel over the price of soup bones, and have it circulated around the neighborhood that when she finally died in her dusty junk heap, the mattress would be full of bankbooks and the pillow stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. She had resisted all these rich temptations in order to appear a lady, and she was repaid by being called a common thief. She began to scream at him.

The Sorrows of Gin”

He loves to generalize: “Walking in the city, we seldom turn and look back”—or: “It is true of even the best of us that if an observer can catch us boarding a train at a way station….”

From these and a myriad other touches a composite image of Cheever-as-a-narrator emerges—a figure that is of course distinct from Cheever-as-a-man, though the two personalities may coincide at certain points. It is only of the former that it can be said that the style is the man; of the latter only his family, friends, and his eventual biographer have the right to make pronouncements. Cheever-as-narrator is a personable fellow—debonaire, graceful, observant, and clever. His sympathies are volatile and warm. He is a good host—one who likes to entertain, to amuse, to turn a phrase. He is also a bit of a show-off, an exhibitionist. Beneath the gaiety and charm of his discourse, deep strains of melancholy and disappointment run. He is not, however, a cynic. Nor is he a profound moralist. He has no fundamental quarrel with the family or society as they now exist. For the ills of the flesh and spirit his sovereign remedy is the repeated application of love, love, love….

Cheever’s highhanded way as a narrator—at its best a display of confident mastery—can degenerate into whimsicality and arbitrariness, especially in the later stories. I am not an admirer of the Wapshot novels, in which so often eccentricity—the more bizarre the better—is regarded as necessarily interesting or amusing in itself, to the detriment of sustained narrative and the sustained development of character. Something very similar is to be found in pieces like “Percy” or “The Jewels of the Cabots,” which read as if they were made up of episodes left over from the annals of St. Botolph. In them Cheever writes as if he couldn’t care less whether we bestow a moment’s credence or concern upon a character who starves herself to death for the sake of the starving Armenians, upon another character who washes her diamonds and hangs them out to dry, and upon still another character who is made to steal those diamonds and then go off to Egypt where she ends up weighing three-hundred pounds. Sheer contrivance dominates these stories and others like them, squeezing the little life they contain into pointless and arbitrary shapes. Cheever’s real energies during this recent period seem to have gone into those strange, dark novels, Bullet Park and Falconer, whose eccentricities—however wild—are not allowed to undermine the powerful and moving stories they have to tell.

Thanks to this volume, the best of Cheever’s stories are now spread glitteringly before us. In our renewed pleasure in these, we can let the others—the trivial and the miscalculated—recede to their proper place. Cheever’s accomplishment in his exacting art is proportionally large, as solid as it is brilliant, and likely to endure—a solemn thing to say (however true) of a writer who has so often flaunted the banner of devil-may-care.

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