Cheever, or The Ambiguities

Home Before Dark

by Susan Cheever
Houghton Mifflin, 243 pp., $15.95

In his last years, John Cheever, a man more disorderly than his proud art and his courteous, somewhat remote, manners revealed, tried to set his house in order. After a heart attack nearly fatal, he gave up a fervent addiction to alcohol, quit smoking—and all the while he was preparing to die of cancer.

Cheever’s was a lyrical talent quite mysterious in its movements. It was always plain that the writer was a New Englander. His stories of New York City and the surrounding prosperous suburbs are filled with men and women who seem, like himself, cast up on the shores of Manhattan’s East Side and his suburban Shady Hill and Bullet Park as exiles from values less fretful and uncertain than they now know. Their expectations from life are high and yet reasonable, or it seems to them. The poisoned dwellings they make for themselves take them by surprise.

The shadowy and troubled undergrowth of Cheever’s stories brings to mind something of the temper of Melville and Hawthorne—and Cheever himself is a sort of Pierre, a study in ambiguity. His special tone is nostalgic, tender about memories of natural illuminations, the fine day, a sunset, the wind on the sea, and the first years of married love. The nostalgia is curiously, and with great originality, combined with a contemporary and rootless compulsion to destroy, even to crash by repetition, the essence of nostalgia, as when the remembered victories of the college track star become a drunken, fatal vaulting over the sofas in the living room. (“O Youth and Beauty!”)

In the beautiful early story, “Goodbye, My Brother,” there is a characteristic balance or imbalance between the most destructive of family hatreds and the final melodies of celebration:

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.

Beautiful, full of grace, black and gold in the water. The rapturous cadence seems to come from a vision of hope uncorrupted by the traumas this imagination so swiftly and deftly uncovers beneath the glisten of good taste, privilege, and a sort of hereditary practice of the easier dimensions of good will. Charm, a vivid possession of so many of Cheever’s men and women, will not bear the strain. They are a bit spoiled perhaps, and he is the master of the darkness that will fall on them.

The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” who has been doing just that, stealing from the houses of his neighbors, has the sweat of financial need and moral collapse lying on the pages. The atmosphere is overcast, clammy with the literal bankruptcy and the criminal solution of Johnny Hake, “conceived in the Hotel St.Regis, born in Presbyterian Hospital, raised …

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