This lengthy article dives into my experiences with several of John Cheever’s most famous short stories.
A Word on Stories
I have a confession. I don’t get why John Cheever’s short stories are so loved.
If you look at my past blog posts, you’ll see that I could pontificate for hours on the greatness of stories by DFW or Barth or Borges or Barthelme or Calvino or …
You might be thinking: well, those are post-modernists. You grab on to the structures, language, and self-reflexivity when you write about them. Most people read for character and story.
But I also get why Turgenev or James Baldwin or Michael Chabon or Hemingway or Joyce’s Dubliners are good.
They show the human struggle and focus on exposing deep truths. They are masterful at building intensity and pacing. They have consistent and unique voices throughout the stories. In other words, they’re about something, and the writing makes you see that.
Let’s talk about John Cheever.
Pretty much all writers put him in the top 10 greatest short story writers in English. I’ve seen several forums where “The Swimmer” is universally agreed to be the greatest short story of all time.
This means I’m missing something. The fact that I don’t understand what makes him great means I can’t tell whether my own stories have this quality.
Unlike the stories mentioned above, Cheever stories read to me like they aren’t about anything, and then at the last moment you realize it might be about something, but that something is totally different.
In other words, they are boring and the end doesn’t seem to cohere with the rest of the work. This series will be about some of Cheever’s most famous stories and my attempt to figure out why people care.
The Country Husband
This first story is one that I almost get. It is the closest I’ve come to liking a Cheever story. I know there isn’t going to be a single silver bullet that explains the greatness.
It will be a hundred little things that don’t seem like much on their own but when taken together add up to greatness.
We’ll start by examining “The Country Husband.”
The beginning of this story is magnificent, which is why I say I kind of get this one. A man is on an airplane that makes a crash landing.
This is the type of traumatizing event that can permanently change a life. This is probably the most significant thing to ever happen in this man’s life.
When he gets home, he tries to tell his family. One by one, they are all caught up in their own trivial activities, so they can’t hear him.
We make fun of this as a purely 21st-century phenomenon. You’ve seen the scene I’m referring to. A family sits down to dinner or someone is on a date, but everyone is so involved with their phones/tablets/devices/etc that no serious conversation could ever happen.
No one even hears the other people when they speak.
Universality of Cheever
This story proves that narrative wrong. Cheever perfectly captures this feeling in 1954. If the story ended there, I’d say this was a work of genius that has withstood the test of time.
It is a brilliant criticism of suburban culture. Everyone is so wrapped up in their own egocentric trivialities (someone called me an idiot on the internet!) that they go unaware of actual traumatizing events even when being told to their face.
The story also contains striking poetic lines
She paints with lightning strokes that panorama of drudgery in which her youth, her beauty, and her wit have been lost.
Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.
I’ve heard that people like Cheever’s stories because he drops brilliant lines in unexpected places. But this can’t be a real reason he’s so admired, because almost all the rest of his sentences are so unremarkable.
Here’s where the story loses me. The main character becomes unrelatable. I don’t mean “unlikeable,” which I think is fine for a story.
His actions make little sense. He says something extremely mean, and out of character, to someone. He essentially stalks the babysitter claiming to love her but briefly fantasizes about raping her.
I understand on an intellectual level that all the plot points, no matter how extreme and varied, tie together around the theme of breaking the myth of a perfect suburban neighborhood.
But it seems to come at the cost of being believable, which I would have thought was the element that made a story like this great.
I can rationalize the behavior by saying the main character bottled this traumatic event up and these are the ways the psychological trauma is manifesting itself. But that’s mostly a cheap way to fix something that felt off to me.
Of course, the point was not to criticize, but to find out why it is great. In this case, I’d say there is excellent metaphorical language, a strong and relatable cultural critique, and each element served the overarching theme.
The Enormous Radio
“The Enormous Radio” was one of Cheever’s earlier stories, so I’m going to assume he did some growing before he hit the pinnacle of his story writing.
This story is truly mystifying. I’ll try my best though.
The story begins with a husband buying a new, large radio. Something seems wrong with it because they get static and weird conversations interrupting normal programming.
The story predates The Twilight Zone, but the premise could have fit right in with it: the radio picks up on conversations happening around their apartment building. They can listen to the lives of other people.
This also feels like the plot to Rear Window, except the suspense never builds. The wife hears a lot of terrible things she doesn’t want to hear (but can’t tear herself away), but it’s not like she gets wrapped up in a murder or anything.
In the end, they fix the radio, but it’s too late. Their earlier peaceful marriage has been ruined by the thing.
There are a few ways to interpret the end.
At first, I assumed it was ironic. The wife kept saying that at least they didn’t have problems like these other people. I thought the end was a big reveal that they actually did have these problems all along.
The radio showed that all people have problems including the main characters. The radio gave voice to their hidden inner problems, hence the irony.
Later, I realized the radio might have caused the problems. This is the more obvious reading.
They are bringing other people’s problems into their home which causes stress on their relationship. It is a less literary reading, and the end doesn’t have as much force if interpreted this way but seems consistent throughout.
So what did this story do to deserve such lasting fame?
One obvious thing is that it handles a gigantic cast of characters in a very small space in an inventive way. You learn about these people and their problems through short clips of dialogue through the radio.
It’s hard to consider this a knock-out reason, though, because lots of writers had been experimenting with this type of thing by this point.
Thematically is where it does its best work. The story examines the question of what it means to be happy in a new light. At this point, American authors seemed to have the dreary “realism” of what it means to not be happy down: Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, etc.
The other side was the fairy tale type story which gave an unrealistic portrayal of happiness. This story suggests that the couple is genuinely happily married, but they still have problems. It isn’t neat and tidy, but it isn’t dreary either.
Let’s move on to “The Swimmer,” aka, the greatest short story ever written in the English language. When I say I don’t get the Cheever phenomenon, it mostly has to do with this.
The more regard people give to a story, the less likely I am to like it.
The story is about a man that decides he is going to “swim” home by diving in and swimming across all his neighbor’s pools until he gets home.
It is midsummer and the swim starts off easy. But as the story goes on it gets colder and harder to swim. At one point a storm breaks out and it appears to be autumn.
He can’t really remember some things that people keep telling him, and things generally get weirder. Finally, he makes it home to find his whole family had moved out a long time ago. The main character stands there confused by the whole thing.
I get it. It fuses a metaphor with reality to create a surreal David Lynch-esque story.
Swimming home is a journey which represents his life. He’s out drinking (probably an alcoholic which blows all his money based on several people saying they won’t loan him any more), and his family leaves him without him even noticing.
In both a literal and metaphorical sense, he escaped the reality of his life for this fantasy.
Of course, the story is extremely well written. It starts off with a clever hook of this swimming feat, but as it gets weirder, it keeps up the suspense by making the reader figure out what is going on.
The little details that each of the neighbors drops allude to different parts of his life, so all the pieces are in place for the big reveal at the end. It’s sort of like The Sixth Sense where the ending allows you to go back and think about all the earlier details in a different way.
Is it Good?
But I must return to the question: what makes it so good?
I’m at a loss for that because the journey as a plot device is as old as stories themselves. The journey as a metaphor for someone’s life is as old as metaphor usage.
The surrealist conflation of metaphor and reality had been going on quite a bit by this point in literature. So even though it is a particularly well-done combination of these things, it wasn’t breaking any new ground or anything.
I also find the first half to be very boring, and it was difficult for me to get into the story.
Why should I care about the character at all?
Maybe this is part of the point. The guy is clearly a stand-in for Narcissus. He is so self-absorbed, looking at his own image in the water that he loses his life without realizing it, so readers aren’t supposed to identify with him.
“The Five-Forty-Eight” is a strange case study for me. To my eye, it breaks a ton of traditional advice given to writers.
The story itself is suspense or thriller. A man notices that a woman is following him. He realizes that it is a secretary he used to have but fired. She is crazy and wants revenge, so she follows him onto a train and threatens him at gunpoint to listen to her.
First, it was originally published in The New Yorker. I hate most stories from The New Yorker. I think I wrote this back when I commented on some Best American Short Stories 2014 stories.
I’m not sure if they get heavily edited to always sound the same, but I started reading this story and immediately knew where it had been published. I looked it up and was correct.
The prose is formulaic and tedious. It is pronoun heavy and has this too-precise alternating between he, she, we, they to the point of distraction.
Fake sample: “He looked at her. She shied away. He knew what she was thinking. She reached out for his hand. They walked together. We live our lives as if there will always be a tomorrow.”
I swear that type of thing is in every story published by The New Yorker.
The story starts out with the suspense of being followed. Structurally there is a flashback to learn about this woman.
Starting with a flashback is usually considered very bad form because it breaks the suspense. I think that is correct in this case.
I’m not a no-flashback purist, but when the flashback information can easily be transferred to the story body, I think it can only improve the flow.
In “The Five-Forty-Eight,” the material could be naturally conveyed through later conversation since this is happening anyway. It would also heighten the suspense of not knowing who this woman is.
The most interesting detail is how the main character keeps coming back to the woman’s handwriting. We are meant to see the instability in her through the ugly, chaotic writing.
It makes me think of Palahniuk’s Diary. I wonder if he was referencing this story when he chose to make handwriting analysis such a major part of his novel.
The plot itself is cliché, even for its time. This is the basic plot of tons of pulp thrillers and Hitchcock films. I don’t think it is supposed to be a parody. It just reads like a standard psychological thriller.
A Redeeming Quality
The one thing I really liked about the story was how the random act of violence changed the characters.
We don’t like to think about it, but these types of things can and do happen all the time. They change people forever.
The man and the woman have opposing trajectories. The man starts confident, but by the end of the event, he is shattered, face down in the dirt.
The woman starts timid and self-conscious, but is confident and restored after the event.
I’m not sure I like the message: revenge can be fulfilling and helpful in overcoming someone that has wronged you.
Goodbye, My Brother
“Goodbye, My Brother” I have a bit more respect for. It is told in first-person, but overall it reads like an ensemble piece.
The impressive part is how he gets such a large number of fully developed characters into such a small space. Having more than two or three main characters is difficult to handle in short stories.
Cheever achieves this by setting up a large number of tightly written scenes to get different combinations to interact with each other.
In addition, the house itself almost becomes a character. Each of the characters derides problems with it or takes comfort in memories from it. This aids in fleshing out the family history. Not that he’s doing anything original with this technique, but it fits the story well.
I like that even though there is no action, there is still a lot of tension and forward motion that gives way to moments of emotion.
It is interesting how he can achieve this by making it feel like something is always about to boil over into a major catastrophe.
It does, in fact, eventually happen, but I won’t spoil it here if you haven’t read it. There is a very intense scene between the main character and his brother.
It is the only bit of action, and the slow build-up makes the release far better than if there had been action the whole time.
Final Verdict on John Cheever Stories
Now that I’ve gone through the major Cheever stories, I can say that I can see hints of greatness throughout.
It is still a mystery to me why he is heralded as one of the best. He is very good, but so are a hundred other people. My guess is that his material spoke to a particular demographic that had most of the literary power of his time.