John Cheever, Master of the Short Story

One of the great things about the appearance of a major biography of a beloved actor, or filmmaker, or writer, is the surge in magazine and newspaper stories revisiting the individual, taking the biography as a trigger for reappraisal. So if you love John Cheever but you’re not inclined to read through a fat new biographical book, you can read the features in New York Review of Books or Vanity Fair, or both. Both arise in response to Blake Bailey’s new book, Cheever: A Life (Vintage)

The two articles linked above are one part review of the new Cheever bio, and one part discussion of Cheever himself, one of the more interesting American writers from the middle of the twentieth century onward. Often referred-to as “American’s Chekov” for his focus on short fiction rather than novels (though he did write a few noteworthy novels, eventually), Cheever’s mastery of the short form was equalled by few. His works appeared most often in the New Yorker in the 50s and 60s, rubbing shoulders with stuff by John Updike, and competing for the attention of the contemporary American literary scene with J.D. Salinger’s stories and Catcher in the Rye, and Norman Mailer’s fiction and journalism.

I always thought of him less as an American Chekov and more as an F. Scott Fitzgerald for the latter half of the century. Though Fitzgerald ended up being better known for novels, the two writers really flourished in their shorter works, wrote crystalline, poetic sentences, and struggled to keep their personal lives on the rails despite the seeming effortlessness of their prose. Excess of drink, self-destructive affairs, and relationships of unbelievable volatility characterized both lives, and had similarly detrimental effects.

I carried this red paperback around with me, this collection of Cheever’s stories, off an on for years. I never sat down and plowed through the whole 700 or so pages at once, just enjoyed a few stories here and there. It always seemed to me very raw and difficult work, despite the preoccupation with bourgeois, suburban concerns. In fact, if Cheever carried on where Fitzgerald left off, I’d say maybe Raymond Carver took the handoff from Cheever and ran with it.

Certainly the best-known of Cheever’s stories is “The Swimmer,” not only because it’s one of the best, but also because it was made into a film starring Burt Lancaster. In that story, one of the more strange and unreal by this author, an affluent suburban guy sets the goal of swimming around his entire neighborhood, climbing fences and going through the back yards of strangers, swimming one pool after another, stopping to talk to his neighbors (who seem to know what he’s doing). Snippets of conversation allude to something in the guy’s situation being wrong, and eventually the reader realizes the guy’s swimming circuit is not the purely lighthearted adventure it may have seemed at first. Most of Cheever’s stories are about such men, and their wives and families and jobs, but “The Swimmer” is more raw and primal, and touches a nerve without the writer ever cranking up the narrative volume.

Many of Cheever’s stories I’d call more “vignette” or “anecdote” than story, something creative writing teachers (and books) warn new writers against. If you can’t set a scene or draw a character with the finesse of Cheever or Hemingway, probably it’s best not to try to have a story in which not much happens except talk over cocktails, or reminiscence about what an acquaintance used to be like compared to what he’s like now.

I guess the “red book” is out of print now, and a new collection of Cheever stories is available now… this one. Same 700-ish pages so probably the same stuff. Some time soon, I’ll have to get out my red paperback and rediscover some of the most adept and dexterous short stories ever crafted by an American writer.

The Stories of John Cheever

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