It’s a kind of voyeuristic pleasure to read a compilation of stories written over an author’s entire career, especially an author as talented and hard-working as John Cheever. In his “Collected Stories and Other Writings” edited by Blake Bailey, who recently released an insightful and heartbreaking biography of the writer (“Cheever, A Life”), Cheever struggles with weighty themes – expectation, class consciousness, morality, alcoholism, marital infidelity, bisexuality and guilt – tropes which are reworked and revisited obsessively over time. Cheever’s demons often caused him to hurt those closest to him (he would return from writing retreats and boast to his wife about his sexual conquests there), but say what you will about his behavior, the “Chekhov of the Suburbs” was one hell of a short story writer.
Cheever’s genius is in his ability to create rich and (mostly) sympathetic characters, show us how circumstances or social norms have built around each one a kind of psychological solitary confinement, and then explore how they might try to escape from, rise above or (more often) simply endure this private, existential prison. In the early stories, Cheever is writing as a realist, inviting us along to posh summer vacations by the sea, where upper crust families entertain themselves with passive-aggressive mind games fueled by gin and familial discontent. Readers of F. Scott Fitzgerald will recognize in Cheever’s characters the yearning that arises in those who rub shoulders with the wealthy – dreamy losers trying (and often failing) to gain access to the glamour just beyond their grasp.
The women in this collection typically fall into one of two categories – there is the bitter, acid-tongued harpy who abandons her family to pursue another passion (like an education, say, or a job); and the virginal baroness or princess, perfect in every way, impossible for the mere mortal to obtain, way up there on her gilded pedestal. Marriage is not just a prison sentence, it is a murderous evolution of the mind-games played by the sea … a fight to the death between the sexes, where fathers and mothers “put the burden of order onto their children and filled their days with specious rites and ceremonies.” Here is a Cheever character in “The Ocean,” wondering if he should eat what might be a poisonous dinner, cooked for him by his wife:
I was routed, in a way, routed and frightened. I guessed that meat heavily dosed with pesticide could be fatal. There was a chance that if I ate the cutlets I might die. The extraordinary fact seemed to be that after twenty years of marriage I didn’t know Cora well enough to know whether or not she intended to murder me. I would trust a chance deliveryman or a cleaning woman, but I did not trust Cora. The prevailing winds seemed not to have blown the smoke of battle off our union. I mixed a Martini and went into the living room. I was not in any danger from which I could not readily escape. I could go to the country club for supper. Why I hesitated to do this seems, in retrospect, to have been because of the blue walls of the room in which I stood. It was a handsome room, its long windows looking out onto a lawn, some trees, and the sky. The orderliness of the room seemed to impose some orderliness on my own conduct – as if by absenting myself from the table I would in some way offend the order of things.
Cheever’s characters are often at war with themselves, wondering how to reconcile their natural impulses with the requirements of social convention, not wanting to “offend the order of things”. When the author lets his imagination off the leash, abandoning realism for a kind of Kafkaesque commentary on suburban life and its discontents, the stories become magical, almost mythical, in their effect. In “The Death of Justina,” for example, a man has to battle an absurd zoning restriction after his mother-in-law dies, an entirely natural condition which has apparently been outlawed by the zoning committee:
My wife’s cheeks were wet with tears when I kissed her. She was distressed, of course, and really quite sad. She had been attached to Justina. She drove me home, where Justina was still sitting on the sofa. I would like to spare you the unpleasant details but I will say that both her mouth and her eyes were wide open. I went into the pantry to telephone Dr. Hunter. His line was busy. I poured myself a drink – the first since Sunday – and lighted a cigarette. When I called the doctor again he answered and I told him what had happened. “Well, I’m awfully sorry to hear about it, Moses,” he said. “I can’t get over until after six and there isn’t much that I can do. This sort of thing has come up before and I’ll tell you all I know. You see, you live in Zone B – two-acre lots, no commercial enterprises and so forth. A couple of years ago some stranger bought the old Plewett mansion and it turned out that he was planning to operate it as a funeral home. We didn’t have any zoning provision at the time that would protect us and one was rushed through the Village Council at midnight and they overdid it. It seems that you not only can’t have a funeral home in Zone B – you can’t bury anything there and you can’t die there. Of course it’s absurd, but we all make mistakes, don’t we? Now there are two things you can do. I’ve had to deal with this before. You can take the old lady and put her into the car and drive her over to Chestnut Street, where Zone C begins. The boundary is just beyond the traffic light by the high school. As soon as you get her over to Zone C, it’s all right. You can just say she died in the car. You can do that or if this seems distasteful you can call the Mayor and ask him to make an exception to the zoning laws. But I can’t write you out a death certificate until you get her out of that neighborhood and of course no undertaker will touch her until you get her a death certificate.”
In what might be the most famous Cheever story (“The Swimmer”), Neddy Merrill awakens one summer’s day from an alcoholic stupor beside a friend’s pool. In a flash of insight Neddy realizes “that by taking a dogleg to the southwest he could reach his home by water”, and decides to leap the fences of his neighbors and swim home via a succession of backyard pools. Along the way, Neddy interrupts quiet Sunday afternoon barbecues and cocktail parties, apologizing to his open-mouthed neighbors as he invades their privacy and dives into their waters. Time and memory seem to contract as Neddy swims his way home. Entire seasons pass – summer changes into fall and finally into winter. Neddy grows tired, but persists in his absurd journey homeward, even after sensing that a tragic epiphany awaits him there. Returning home after an absence of what has seemed like years, Neddy finds a crumbling house, long since abandoned. “He had done what he wanted, he had swum the county, but he was so stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague.”
“The Swimmer” shows us a protagonist at sea, trying desperately to maintain his public composure while feeling wholly divorced from the society in which he moves. In Cheever’s works, water represents a whole host of things – at times memory, baptism, opportunity, life, sex, and death. Water, rivers, the sea – these are chaotic, ever-changing elements. Cheever’s characters turn to them in order to sustain themselves, to find the courage required to endure yet another day in the prisons around them. The sad and beautiful thing about “The Swimmer” is the sense that, unless we address the larger problem of the prison and the way it makes us feel, the restorative swim in the water eventually loses its power to heal. Self-knowledge is required to break down those walls, and since so few of Cheever’s characters attain enlightenment, few of them come away from their dip in the chaotic, turbulent sea feeling truly refreshed.
“Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing,” Cheever writes. “Our knowledge of ourselves and of one another, in a historical moment of mercurial change, is groping. To hedge our observation, curiosity, and reflection with indifference would be sheer recklessness.”
Or, to put it more simply, from his story “Artemis, The Honest Well Digger”:
“In the search for water, some people preferred a magician to an engineer. If magic bested knowledge, how simple everything would be: water, water.”