Apr 10, 2008

The Stories of John Cheever

"These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner of the stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like "the Cleveland Chicken," sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are."
From the Preface
This almost 900 pages long tome contains over sixty stories, originally published between 1947 and 1978. Most of the stories are about upper middle-class suburban families, and are told from a male perspective. Don’t be fooled, though. There is much more here than stories about rich people drinking martinis. These are subtle stories, stories that show us the hidden corners of our lives. When the narrator of “The Worm in the Apple” asks, What was at the bottom of this appearance of happiness? he is asking the question with which a great deal of these stories deal.

Cheever’s stories are stories that make us ask ourselves how happy we are. They are stories that make us confront our demons, our hushed fears, our secret shames. They are stories (like "The Cure” and “Seaside Houses”) full of quiet despair. They are stories that catch us unaware, stories that change us.

When reading Cheever, sometimes a word might strike you as odd, and it is only later that you realize that it hints at something whose whole significance is later revealed. The pace, the cadence, the phrasing – in his stories, all is deliberate and precise. His command of language is masterful. His irony is wonderful, and he is exquisite at making humour and tragedy go hand in hand. Often he will deliberately misdirect your attention at the beginning, so that the story’s real aim may sneak at you and catch you fully disarmed. Reading this collection made me gain a new appreciation for short stories. Cheever is one of the masters of the form.

John Cheever is supposedly a realistic writer, and yet often in his stories bizarre things take place – bizarre things that remain unexplained. “The Lowboy” begins as a story about sibling rivalry and turns into a ghost story; in “The Enormous Radio”, a woman gets a radio that can be used to eavesdrop on hers neighbour’s conversations; “The Music Teacher” gives you a glimpse of the mysterious, the horrific, through what may or may not be the use of black magic by a husband who wishes to subdue his wife. And even when nothing that could be called supernatural is happening, Cheever’s stories are often unusual because they show people at their most bizarre.

In some stories, like “The Country Husband” and “The Season of Divorce”, there is no big transformation at the end. Things resume normality, and yet you get a glimpse of the turmoil hiding just under the surface. The interesting thing is that rather than being unsatisfying, this only makes the stories more powerful, more unsettling.

As in all collections – especially ones this long – some stories are better than others. I wasn’t as fond of the last third of the book as I was of the first two. At some point Cheever developed a slight obsession with Italy, and his Italian stories didn’t do much for me (not because of the setting, of course, but simply because I didn’t find them as good). Then again, some of the best stories, like “The Swimmer” or “The Geometry of Love”, are to be found in the last third of the book.

I know that the sheer size of this book is intimidating. But if you find yourself at a library with some time in your hands, pick it up, sit down, and read a story. It probably won’t take you too long – the stories average ten pages. Then put it back on the shelf and do the same another day. Perhaps you will, like me, find yourself irresistibly drawn to Cheever’s world – a world in which there’s more to things and people than meets the eye.

Click here to read a short essay by Michael Chabon about the story “The Swimmer”.

Other Opinions:
Rebecca Reads
Rose City Reader


  1. This sounds really cool. I love the setting described in the preface and from what you've written about the stories he sounds like an amazing writer...one I've never heard of before either! And he's a Pulitzer winner! I'm so leary of huge books though...I have so many chunksters already and I just avoid them all the time. I like your advice of taking them in small steps.

  2. I've been meaning to read Cheever's "Falconer" since I read the A.M. Homes introduction to the Penguin edition of the book. He is supposed to be one of those great American writers who deals with the illusions of The Great American Dream. Appearance is everything in Cheever's works. Are you with the right car? The right job? The right wife?

    According to A.M. Homes, Cheever has a bizarre writing routine:

    "The story goes that John Cheever started his days by dressing for work; putting on his good suit, his felt hat and taking the elevator down with all the other men of a certain class on their way to the office. But from the lobby of his New York apartment building he would take the stairs to a windowless storage room in the basement. He would hang up his hat take off the suit and sit, in his underwear, typing until lunch time when he'd get dressed again and rise to the surface."

    And I wonder what kind of a man does this to write?

  3. Chris: He is amazing. And he seems to have been half forgotten, which is really a pity. I hadn't heard of him either until one of my teachers picked one of his stories to use in class a few years ago...it was called "Christmas is a Very Sad Season for the Poor", and it's full of delicious irony. I know what you mean about huge books...but the good thing about short stories collection is that you can take them as slowly as you'd like. It took me close to 2 months to get through this one.

    Dark Orpheus: lol, that's a bizarre routine indeed. There's definitely a low of obsession with appearance in these stories...the right car, job, wife, living in the right suburb, being invited to the right parties by the right people. What he does is show the hollowness hiding just under the surface of these lives. These people, whose lives are supposedly perfect, are not happy. And they don't talk about it - they never ever talk about it. So their unhappiness expresses itself in other ways.

  4. Never read anything by him. But you have definitely left me intrigued. Like Chris, the sheer volume of that book leaves me a bit intimidated...but your suggestion about a story at a time with each library visit, well, that's positively brilliant! And Annie and I are off to the library today :)

  5. I have not yet read Cheever. After reading your post, I'll definitely look his book up in the library. These stories sound intriguing.

  6. This sounds like a wonderful collection of stories and I have never read anything by the author. I will have a look in the library tomorrow after my book group and see if they have anything I can read quickly. Thanks for the great review.

  7. Debi: I hope you and Annie had a great time at the library! I really do know what you mean about the size of the book...and you know, it probably would have taken me even longer to read it if it wasn't for the Pulitzer Project. I think this one really is meant to be taken in small doses, even because the stories, though they are great, can become a bit repetitive after a while. Whenever I started feeling that way I put the book aside for a day or two, and after a break I'd appreciate the stories much more.

    Anna: I hope you enjoy the stories

    Rhinoa: I hope you manage to find something at the library. I know he has some short novels, but I haven't read any yet. Given the quality of his writing, though, I can't imagine them not being good.

  8. I have heard his name but to my knowledge have never read any of his stories. Your review is intriguing and the stories sound fascinating.

  9. Carl, I hope you enjoy the stories when you get the chance to read them!

  10. Nymeth - you are constantly reminding me of the things I need to be reading. :) So...when I'm done with my blogging and dinner is made (yes, I'm doing both at the same time), I'm going to sit on the couch with a short story anthology and read something *short*. I haven't read any Cheever, but I'm wondering if one of my anthologies has one of his stories tucked away...

  11. Trish: I've been guilty of blogging and cooking at the same time too :P I hope you enjoy your short story reading! I'm not sure how often Cheever is included in anthologies, but some of his stories, like The Enormous Radio and The Swimmer, seem to be very popular.

  12. Actually--Death of Justina is anthologized in one copy and The Five-Forty-Eight in another. Not the two you mentioned, but I'll give them a go.

  13. The Death of Justina wasn't one of my favourites, but I really enjoyed The Five Forty Eight! It perfectly illustrates some of the things I was saying about him - how in some of his storie, something really bizarre happens, and them normality is resumed. Except that once you get a glimpse of what CAN happen, once you know what is hiding behind the appearance of normality, the world will never look the same anymore.

  14. I've never picked up a book by John Cheever and really should now! I liked the way you describe the stories and as I'm trying to be better about reading short stories I should look for one of his. Another wonderful review Nymeth.

  15. I just listened to the audio for some of these stories and I love them! I can't wait to read some more. This review helps me be even more excited about it!


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