Monday, June 16, 2014

John Cheever, Collected Stories

Another ambivalent chronicler of proprieties, like Henry James lite, showing at once how stifling and crazy-making all these social rules are and also how necessary. But in this case, either because Cheever makes himself less distant from his characters, or because their proprieties are less distant from mine, the sense of their importance and violation is more intuitive than James's. I still spent plenty of time looking up things like Lady Baltimore Cakes, serge suits, and Episcopalian church services. (I at first thought the characters were Catholic because they took communion, then decided this was improbable, vindicated my doubt via the internet, then wondered whether I've ever even met an Episcopalian.) Also puzzling was why, despite the fact that all the characters drink enough to euthanize a horse, no one is ever depicted drinking a beer or even a glass of wine, unless they're abroad. Was there really a world so recently lost whose inhabitants exclusively drank cocktails, whose alcoholism was so stylish? Maybe it still exists somewhere or could return, so that we don't have to spend our social lives trying hopelessly to discriminate the fruit notes in a tasting flight of microbrews?

I read "The Swimmer" in high school, and although it was beautiful and impossible to shake off, it also gave me the inaccurate impression that Cheever was a typical mid-century critic of bourgeois suburban despair. But the progression of the short stories suggests a different development: Cheever's early stories are more New York-centric, critical of the bareness and compression of city life, but already ironic and redemptive. ("Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor" is so aggressively ironic that it could be mistaken for something from O.Henry.) The middle stories are the suburban ones, taking place in old money (but besieged by new money) Shady Hill, where the burden of keeping up appearances has made everyone privately crazy, but where there is still enough sweetness in life that most of them eventually find something to keep them going, usually a crisis-induced realization of their love for or need of their spouses. In the Library of America edition that I read, there is a little essay inserted in the end, "Why I Write Short Stories," that strengthens my impression that these suburban stories cautiously embrace suburban life as a reasonable temporary shelter from the postwar storm, something less than the lofty dignity that its mishmash of historical facades aspires to, but something more substantial than mere appearances. It's the later stories, among them "The Swimmer," which are about irredeemable despair. But these are also less consistent - often we're abroad, usually in Italy, starting to approach Jamesian territory. I'm an impatient reader of the American expatriate's lament, so I skipped many of these.

One liberty that Cheever seems unable to permit his characters - in addition to a sip of wine or beer - is a divorce. There are many threats of and attempts to divorce, but the couples always recover each other in the end. In the only two stories of unsalvageable marriages, Cheever kills the couple's children first, as if in pre-emptive retaliation for their waywardness. It's not that there are no divorces or family abandonments off the page - we encounter many fatherless characters, and some who divorced at some point before the story begins. But that the story itself should countenance such a rupture seems impossible.

Finally, there is a short appreciation of Saul Bellow appended to this edition, particularly fitting for me because Bellow is one of the few contemporaneous writers I've read, and all throughout these stories, I kept thinking of their inversion of Bellow's preoccupations. Bellow's characters are hustlers, even those who find themselves in genteel professions (of which there seems to be approximately one for Bellow: the academic), where they proceed to become hustling professionals. And hustling works for Bellow's characters, though they sometimes suffer nervous breakdowns along the way. In Cheever's stories by contrast, there is a pronounced absence of hustling. He depicts some misguided efforts to hustle ("The Pot of Gold" and "O City of Broken Dreams"), but these schemes suggest that it's a doomed pursuit, in addition to being disreputable. In his appreciation, Cheever has a funny description of competing with Bellow: 
"I was determined to diminish the book. I read Augie March dead drunk in a heated room. I read it backwards. I read it upside down in a bucket of water. The clarity of the voice and the music he sang remained peerless. I then moved my family to Italy, where,on a winter afternoon, I saw a woman on a Roman bus reading with great intensity an Italian translation of Augie. I wanted to kill her."
I wonder if he saw him as representing American life from something like the opposite end, from the precariousness of clinging to the summit rather than the vagaries of climbing it?


Withywindle said...

Oh, who would conceive her
A reader of Cheever?
It must be a fever!
Oh, please, Grimmish Reiver,
We beg you to leave her:
We promise she'll beaver
On Richard M. Weaver
For-eever and eever--
Sir, will you relieve her?

Miss Self-Important said...

Vacuous words of spite come
From a joyless anti-Decamerite!