Stories, by John Cheever

It took me a couple of months to read this book, much longer than normal for me even with a longer work of fiction. What I found was that I couldn’t read more than a couple of stories at a time, and that I needed to take time off to read other things in between.

I’d read a few of Cheever’s stories before, but the experience of reading them in bulk was quite different. What drew me to this collection was the opportunity of reading his journals at the same time, hoping to satisfy my curiosity about how other writers transform their experiences into fiction. Also, of course, about anything he had to say about the experience of writing itself.

The stories, at least those in this collection, were written in the years after World War II through the Seventies and describe a single, small segment of society: the upper middle-class suburban culture where men commuted into New York every day for work and women stayed home to keep house, raise children, and volunteer for worthy causes. At one point, he notes with surprise that men have stopped wearing hats and women gloves. Some stories turn on the isolation of a suburban man or family in a foreign culture, and others on the introduction of someone from another culture (an Italian count, a Jewish family, a brassy lower-class wife) into this world.

This is the world that dominated the entertainment media in those mid-century decades: the Petries, the Cleavers, etc. Cheever’s gift is to show the loneliness, fear, and even violence behind the quiet suburban windows, as Grace Metalius showed the sexual games and musical beds. Cheever demonstrates that lives which seem fixed and certain, even boring, are in fact precariously balanced and can tumble down at the slightest cross-breeze. Death haunts these stories, death of the spirit as well as the body. Occasionally, after reading a few of these stories, I’d be reminded of Fortinbras “knee-deep in Danes”, as the song goes.

A few of the stories venture into the metaphysical, and these seemed to me less successful than those that stayed on a realistic plane. One (“Boy in Rome”) even played with the idea of writing itself, a bit of meta-fiction that impressed me: not overdone, not playing for the sake of playing, just enough.

I particularly liked the stories about the role work plays in our lives, such as “The Ocean”, where a man is eased out of his high-level job with a substantial golden parachute, but wants only to find a place to work, an arena in which he can use his skills. He is reduced to driving to the station to meet the evening train, rejoicing in the sight of all the commuting husbands erupting from it to join their waiting wives.

Most of the stories are, however, about love. And marriages gone wrong. These concerns dominate the journals as well. A few stories allude to the difficulties women faced, confined to the home but wanting to work. Having read many such stories from the women’s point of view, I found a man’s point of view revealing.

While the post-war New York suburban culture is not a world that interests me, Cheever’s prose is mesmerizing. I found myself going back after reading a story and looking at the brief character descriptions, the transitions from one scene to the next, even individual sentences, trying to pick apart where the magic happens, how he manages to convey so much emotion with such straight-forward language. What made me keep putting the book down was the sadness of the stories themselves, their desolate tone and bleak philosophy.

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