Mr. Burns, our instructor, read to us from Cheever’s collection The World of Apples, and also from the novel called Bullet Park. The novel is noteworthy for the nomenclatural coincidences of its protagonists: Eliot Nailles and Paul Hammer. This conceit seemed too easy to me. In fact, since I was writing science fiction at the time—and not even the Philip K. Dick or J. G. Ballard kind of science fiction, the good kind—I didn’t really understand Cheever at all.
For graduation, my dad gave me a trip to Europe—to Paris, London, Rome and Geneva. He also gave me a copy of The Stones of John Cheever. Foreign travel made me homesick, though, and I did nothing in London and Paris but read the Cheever stories. I lurked with my bulky red tome in the various parks near the hotel, in case Dad should permit me to fly home. In recognition of my afternoons spent reading, I decorated my hardcover copy of the Stories with a sticker (nontransferable) that allowed me to sit in a chair in Hyde Park. This luxury, back then, cost fifteen pence per diem.
I don’t remember thinking much of the stories. I thought they were neither good nor bad. Fiction was narcotic, the way I saw it, and that was what I liked about this particular book, though I also remember admiring one piece, “Three Stories,” in part narrated by a protagonist’s stomach (“The subject today will be the metaphysics of obesity, and I am the belly of a man named Lawrence Farnsworth”), as well as a catalogue-story entitled “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear.”
Next came the punk rock years, during which I threw out most of my dinosaur records (Genesis, E.L.P.) and replaced them with totems of a new orthodoxy, the bands of CBGB’s and of King’s Row. As part of this dislocation, I began to bristle at aspects of my biography. I began, for example, to refer to St. Paul’s as a high school—as if, like other people’s alma maters, it was just down the road and had a prom night. I began to avoid certain garments (Oxfords with button-down collars, tartan boxer shorts, loafers, tweed jackets), and to ridicule writers or artists or musicians or anybody else who seemed to have anything to do with the upper middle class or station wagons or cocktail hour or golden retrievers or show tunes or tennis lessons or backgammon or the Episcopal Church or ambitions for success in the world of finance. I began to ridicule the very archipelago of suburbs that had spawned me. I ripped holes in my T-shirts and jeans. I had my ear pierced by a friend.
Cheever, along with Updike, I suddenly included on the list of enemies of my new state. Who was this khaki-clad, Scotch-drinking New Yorker writer scribbling his sentimental prose about ordinary life? My resentments became more acute during my first year at Brown University when my freshman creative writing instructor, a graduate student, brought in The Stories of John Cheever as a model of good form, going so far as to single out the celebrated last paragraph of its first piece, which runs in part:
Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to inestimable greatness of the race, that harsh surface beauty of life?Well, I was the kind of student writer who looked eagerly for the dwarf or the burn victim or the heartbroken octogenarian, who scoured the newspapers for the tale of the pit bull who’d ravaged the schoolyard (three dead, scores injured), and I could hardly think of the close of “Goodbye, My Brother” as anything but propaganda for readers who wanted only affirmation of their conventions, an impression exacerbated by the PBS-style beauty of the last sentence, in which “the naked women came out of the sea.” Nor did I care for the other, frequently anthologized Cheever stories my grad student instructor offered me: “The Enormous Radio,” “The Sorrows of Gin,” etc.
From freshman year forward, then, the mention of Cheever and any of his ilk was enough to provoke in me tirades about conformism and hypocrisy and oppression, about the schoolyard and country club cruelties I’d known back home. Ideally, youth is supposed to be flexible and open to ideas, full of reverence for the impromptu snowstorm or the poetry of kids crossing quadrangles with arms full of flowers and beer, overjoyed by certain loud guitars and amplifiers, altered once and for all in the thrall of great books, but above all disinclined to think prejudicially or to be contemptuous without investigation. Not in my case.
In the meantime, out of desperation and because of limited professional skills, I went to graduate school. There, in a literature class, I had yet again to confront those stories of Cheever. I’m powerless to describe exactly what changed in the five years between freshman year at Brown and spring semester of graduate school, what alchemy of bad jobs (recorded tour salesman, bibliographer), Upper West Side dusks and uncompleted romances did the trick, effected the transformation. I hadn’t yet been through any real tragedies—not of the butchering sort into which one might suture a change of heart. Maybe I was just growing up. The Cheever stories, of course, had traversed the interval intact. Their language was the same.
But in spring of 1986 the stories suddenly had a richness that they hadn’t displayed the last time I’d checked. They weren’t about surfaces anymore, but rather about contradictions and ambiguities beneath the “harsh surface beauties of life.” “The Fourth Alarm,” e.g., struck me as unusually poignant this time, in which the narrator cannot, apparently, tell the story he needs to tell unless he indulges: “I sit in the sun drinking gin. It is ten in the morning. Sunday. Mrs. Uxbridge is off somewhere with the children. Mrs. Uxbridge is the housekeeper. She does the cooking and takes care of Peter and Louise.” Then there was the justifiably celebrated “The Swimmer,” in which a pastiche of idyllic suburban poolsides (and further gin and tonics) culminates not in the bland affirmations I associated with Cheever’s early work but, rather, in a powerful and sudden desolation, as the swimmer approaches his home:
The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys’ for supper? Had the girls joined her there or gone someplace else?... The house was locked, and he thought that the stupid cook or the stupid maid must have locked the place up until he remembered that it had been some time since they had employed a maid or a cook. He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.There were oblique ambitions here that I had been too rigid to notice earlier, and these ambitions were especially vivid in the conjunction of Cheever’s moral vision and the persistent inability of his characters to measure up to this vision. The best example of this later work awaited me, though, as I approached the last story in the collection, “The Jewels of the Cabots.” In recollection, it seems that the only readers in my graduate school class who liked the piece were the instructor and me. There was a persistent feeling, among my fellow apprentice writers, of mystification about this final story. What was it about? Was it about anything at all? Had Cheever perhaps gone so far with his rumored drinking that he was capable only of a narrative so demented and fragmented? “Jewels” had none of the crafted, understated grace of, say, “Goodbye, My Brother.” It didn’t seem to settle down and narrate. In its events, it wasn’t particularly credible. But for me it opened up a new stretch of highway.
“The Jewels of the Cabots” begins conventionally enough: “Funeral services for the murdered man were held in the Unitarian church in the little village of St. Botolph’s.” Superficial impressions are invited immediately. Cheever implies a conflict in the fact of murder, with story to follow (that’s the formula), and the landscape is evidently the kind of smalltown, suburban scenery that we always associate with his work. In fact, St. Botolph’s is a location used profitably by the author elsewhere, notably in the novels The Wapshot Chronicle and The Wapshot Scandal. We’re premeditatedly in Cheever country.
Almost immediately, though, the story begins to attend to more curious details: “The service was a random collection of Biblical quotations closing with a verse.” A random collection? The narrator muses upon the deceased, Amos Cabot, and Cabot’s abortive run at the governorship, as though this were the story, and so it would seem, until this potentially straightforward second paragraph suddenly yields half its length to a parenthetical about the narrator himself, though he’s neither a Cabot nor a significant actor in the lives of the Cabots. The substance of this preliminary digression is merely by way of introduction, in which this arguably fictional narrator encounters “a woman carrying a book of mine.” A book with the narrator’s photograph upon it. We are encouraged to take his aside either as “the truth” or at least as something quite near to it. This is either John Cheever’s voice or a constructed version thereof, and John Cheever’s remarks here constitute a violation of story space—one that’s right at home in the fiction of the seventies, if not in the oeuvre of the writer of “a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river of light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the comer stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.”
Some conventional backstory follows. About the Cabots, about Mrs. Cabot’s jewels, which she dries weekly upon a clothesline. But just as things are getting under way the narrator abandons the Cabots entirely, for a page or more, to tell us of a visit home to his own mother. She is, Cheever tells us, “terribly lonely,” though that is not the substance of the encounter (one might argue, however, that it’s so central as to avoid being mentioned) nor even is the following the reason for the digression: “I bring up, with powerful unwillingness, a fact that was told to me by her sister after Mother’s death. It seems that at one time she applied for a position with the Boston Police Force.”
No, Cheever digresses, apostrophizes, interrupts the story rather to illustrate the way the narrator and his mother communicate: after a venal display of anti-Semitism by his mom—“Your father said the only good Jew was a dead Jew although I did think Justice Brandeis charming”—after considerable friction on the subject, the narrator (whose wife, like Mary Cheever herself, is half-Jewish) can think of no way to address his mother’s brutality further, but to change the subject.
“I think it’s going to rain,” I said. It was one of our staple conversation switch-offs, used to express anger, hunger, love, and the fear of death. My wife joined us and Mother picked up the routine: “It’s nearly cold enough for snow.”Here’s the center of “The Jewels of the Cabots,” as it begins to erupt in the framework of a more orthodox story: an acute longing for attachment, communication and affection that remains disguised, all but entirely thwarted, and addressed only laterally.
Formally speaking, the narrator then changes the subject of the story itself, which is to say that he abandons Mom to her antipathies, so that he may instead reminisce about the Cabot children. Two girls, Molly and Geneva, now grown up. A pair of paragraphs follow, traditionally nostalgic, about the narrator’s love for Molly and about a bygone time: “It was so long ago that when you wanted to make a left turn you cranked down the car window and pointed in that direction [italics in original].” The purpose of this lateral construction (wasn’t this supposed to be a story about Amos Cabot’s murder? and when exactly are we going to learn about this murder?) is not, however, to speak of Molly or Geneva, but to introduce yet another tangentially related morsel: Once upon a time, in bringing home his beloved Molly from a date, the front door at the Cabots’ house “was opened by a dwarf. He was exhaustively misshapen. The head was hydrocephalic, the features were swollen. The legs were thick and cruelly bowed. I thought of the circus. The lovely young woman began to cry.”
A dwarf? The image should be familiar enough to readers of nineteenth-century novels. From Jane Eyre, etc. It’s the madwoman-in-the-attic trope, used here with slight variation, to convey the mysteries beneath the surface of family, the things unspoken. Yet before we can learn any more about our dwarf (who never again steps into this limelight), the story embarks on another radical sideways movement, taking up instead the narrator’s summer camp experiences, in particular a tender and platonic love affair with a fellow camper:
We were together most of the time. We played marbles together, slept together, played together on the same back-field, and once together took a ten-day canoe trip during which we nearly drowned together … It was the most gratifying and unself-conscious relationship I had known.A romantic triangle muddies these unself-conscious waters, though, when the narrator’s pal, DeVarennes, becomes jealous of his attentions toward a new camper called Wallace. Wallace, according to DeVarennes, in a moment of powerful vexation, is “Amos Cabot’s bastard son.” DeVarennes relents of his jalousie, however (after, literally, a heavy rainstorm), and his attachment to the narrator continues. Then why bring it up? Why the addition of Wallace? Is Wallace related to the dwarf? No, the dwarf is the progeny of an earlier Cabot marriage. What’s the reason for the camp story then? Certainly, at a page and a half, it’s a little long to be here simply for the sake of alerting us to “Amos Cabot’s bastard son.” Moreover, it violates, as does the earlier story about the narrator’s mother, the standards of allowable narratorial intrusiveness. Yet, as with the earlier interruption, the melancholy and charm of Cheever’s voice overcome our resistance, such that we begin to wonder, really, if the tale of the Cabots is the tale we want to hear at all.
At which juncture, perversely, the genuine plotting kicks in. Mrs. Cabot goes to dry her jewels on the clothesline, afterwards napping (while claiming not to nap), thereby moving the story along and giving us a diagram of the form of “The Jewels of the Cabots”:
She claimed that she had never taken a nap in her life, and the sounder she slept, the more vehement were her claims that she didn’t sleep. This was not so much an eccentricity on her part as it was a crabwise way of presenting the facts that was prevalent in that part of the world [italics mine].Mrs. Cabot’s diamonds are then stolen by her daughter Geneva. Who absconds to the Mideast with the fortune, while sister Molly, much in lamentation, walks upon the beach with the narrator. “There had been a scene between her parents and her father had left. She described this to me. We were walking barefoot. She was crying. I would like to have forgotten the scene as soon as she finished her description.” Predictably, the narrator elects not to give us the painful scene between the elder Cabots, but undertakes instead three entire pages (in a story of just over fourteen) of digression. And it was these very pages that first made clear to me, in 1986, how people really tell stories, how the well-made realistic story (including the sort of New Yorker sketch that Cheever himself once dazzlingly practiced) is composed mainly of lies, lies, lies, is incapable, with its repartee and banter, with its kooky characters and boundless sympathies, with its trailer parks and high-rises, of getting through its stylized and artificial frame to the genuine vacillations and peregrinations of the heart. Thus the narrator:
Children drown, beautiful women are mangled in automobile accidents, cruise ships founder, and men die lingering deaths in mines and submarines, but you will find none of this in my accounts. In the last chapter, the ship comes home to port, the children are saved, the miners will be rescued. Is this an infirmity of the genteel or a conviction that there are discernible moral truths? Mr. X defecated in his wife’s top drawer. This is a fact, but I claim that it is not truth.That’s just for starters, in a disclaimer that is evidently an elaborate catalogue of the very things disclaimed. Later, e.g., in this three-page flourish, we find a lengthy portrait of “a male prostitute who worked as a supervisor in the factory during the day and hustled the bar at night, exploiting the extraordinary moral lassitude of the place” (Doris is the name of this unfortunate, and s/he is accorded an entire paragraph in “Jewels,” though he has little to do with the tale), who in turn produces in the narrator, catalytically, further reminiscence of the past, of the stifling suppressions and repressions of home, during which, after he excavates some ugly exchanges between his own parents, this story-within-story finds the narrator’s mother again changing the subject: “She would sigh once more and put her hand to her heart. Surely this was her last breath. Then, studying the air above the table, she would say, ‘Feel that refreshing breeze.’ There was, of course, seldom a breeze.”
The anguish of these digressive pages comes from the fact (as in “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear”) that the impressions that most aggrieve Cheever are both invoked and banished—so that what is suppressed becomes a vital source of energy and poetry, so that the thing feared within is projected without. This tendency is to me moving and genuine. By the end of the digression (which is still not complete with his mother’s flourish), Cheever is cataloguing instances of intrafamilial cruelties far and wide (in his own home, in the American world around him and, for some reason, in Rome), desperately, compulsively and lovingly,
Then one hears across the courtyard the voice of an American woman. She is screaming, “You’re a God-damned fucked-up no-good insane piece of shit. You can’t make a nickel, you don’t have a friend in the world and in bed you stink …” Why would I sooner describe church bells and flocks of swallows? Is this puerile, a sort of greeting-card mentality, a whimsical and effeminate refusal to look at the facts? On and on she goes but I will follow her no longer.The denial that closes the paragraph seems particularly forlorn to me, and thus intensely wise. Not long after it, the digression at last sputters to a close, again with its own exhausted attempt at evasion: “Feel that refreshing breeze.”
Cheever, of course, is not describing church bells and flocks of swallows in “Jewels,” not so often as he is erupting with the alarming but thoroughly verifiable truths that pass between people outside of the frame of realistic short fictions. This is a narration at once fierce, dignified and deeply neurotic, and it’s a whole lot like the way the people I know talk and think. “My recollections of the Cabots,” he thus finally admits, “are only a footnote to my principal work,” but not before telling us, at last, of the awful confrontation between Amos and Mrs. Cabot, delayed by his splendid evasions. “The scene that I would like to overlook or forget took place the night after Geneva had stolen the diamonds. It involves plumbing.”
Because of Mrs. Cabot’s reign over the household, Amos is forbidden use of the one and only bathroom on the second floor, and therefore “obliged to use a chamber pot.” He is thus engaged when Mrs. Cabot comes to the door of his room:
”Will you close the door? Do I have to listen to that horrible noise for the rest of my life?” They would both be in nightgowns, her snow-white hair in braids. She picked up the chamber pot and threw its contents at him.After which, Mrs. Cabot poisons her husband. “The Jewels of the Cabots” then concludes with a short scene, two paragraphs only, during which the narrator visits Geneva Cabot in Cairo. She has become a “fat woman” and married a relative of the king. “On the last day I swam in the Nile—overhand—and they drove me to the airport, where I kissed Geneva—and the Cabots—goodbye.”
This last collected short story in the Cheever canon (I have in my possession a couple of uncollected later examples, and they are equally fascinating) occupies for me the place that “The Dead” has in Joyce’s Dubliners. It is a summa for what has come before, a farewell that announces its farewell, a commentary upon the confining formula of the early stories and a discovery—while working both within and without this formula—of a tremendous liberty to delight and to move. And it is all these things while positing a sober and enlightened idea of human emotions and relationships. Here, in the twilight of the Cheever oeuvre, yearning and disgrace, generosity and cruelty, love and contempt are all equally near.
The term I appropriated for the beguiling strategy of “The Jewels of the Cabots,” when I was trying to understand what was special about it and why I liked it so much, was indirection. Through which we speak very little of what needs to be said. Through which we find other figures and tropes for these central issues. Through which we evade and equivocate and pay for it later. This strategy had, I thought, as its reliable techniques, digression and lateralness (the “crabwise motion” of Mrs. Cabot’s discourse), fragmentation and denial, and the more you looked for it, the more you found it in some surprising places. Salinger, for example, wrote one of the great indirect stories: “Seymour: An Introduction.” Or there’s Sterne or Proust. Or Beckett’s Watt. Or just about anything by Thomas Bernhard. What makes all this work intelligible is not event or character, but voice. In “Jewels,” the characters are relevant—Molly Cabot and poor murdered Amos are rendered with a genuine sympathy—but it’s the psychology of the narrator that has the central role in the text. It’s the narrator who offers the broadest palette with which to render the heavy weather of human emotions.
How does Cheever come by this strategy? What, in his case, makes it so organic? An acquaintance with his biography suggests that indirection had a far more important role in who he was—and how he thought and felt—than we can intuit from merely reading the stories and novels. It’s possible to see, from a later vantage point, that the tropes of indirection were part of a larger struggle throughout the process of his work.
Which is to say that just as I was racing through the Cheever canon (after graduate school), Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever’s memoir of her father, was beginning to have its impact on his reputation. I’d seen an excerpt from its pages, but at last I sat down to read it entirely, and to take in its difficult lessons. In it, there is of course John Cheever’s progressive and overwhelming alcoholism to contend with (it’s the reason I don’t much like Bullet Park: the novel feels marred by the nearsightedness of drink), and his premature death from renal cancer, and these sorrows alone would color an interpretation of his voice and make it even more poignant than it already is—especially in the case of alcoholism, where ethical paradoxes always flourish. Strikingly, Home Before Dark also presented the first excerpts from Cheever’s journals, and these painted an indelible and harrowing portrait: of a writer fighting hard to avoid drinking in the morning and then giving in, of a writer wandering Boston, flask in hand, of a writer struggling to work and so forth.
Alcoholism would be enough to make indirection and its techniques compelling, but there is yet another biographical theme that needs addressing in light of Cheever’s later style. Initially, one of the most surprising revelations of Home Before Dark was the fact of John Cheever’s bisexuality. However, for me, and perhaps for many readers, this revelation was like that refreshing breeze (of “The Jewels of the Cabots”) blowing through a constrictive environment. Here was the personal dimension inexplicably missing from the Cheever legend as he was rendered by publicists and magazines and awards committees; here was a convolution (as distinct from a flaw, though Cheever himself may have felt his bisexuality to be a flaw); here was a revelation. John Cheever was a person, at last, not merely an upstanding citizen (if indeed there are any upstanding citizens); John Cheever was a troubled but resolute adventurer in the trenches of self.
The fascination with this “other” sexuality apparently started early, if indeed it was not coeval with Cheever himself, and grew more and more to be a part of him, as I understand it, until, as an older man, he accepted it thoroughly. In the work, we know well of this ambiguity, once we are attuned to it, as an opportunity for some powerful indirection. From “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear,” e.g.:
6. And while we are about it, out go all those homosexuals who have taken such a dominating position in recent fiction. Isn’t it time that we embraced the indiscretion and inconstancy of the flesh and moved on?Or this passage from The Wapshot Chronicle:
And now we come to the unsavory or homosexual part of our tale and any disinterested reader is encouraged to skip.Or there is Doris the male prostitute in “The Jewels of the Cabots,” or the summer camp affair or countless other allusions, until, by the publication of Falconer, with its prison locale and prison language and prison sexuality, homosexual experience is quite close to the surface of the work.
In due course, first in The New Yorker, and then between hardcovers, we had a larger sampling of Cheever’s journals with which to contextualize his stories, and with which to attempt in more detail the questions of Cheever’s sexuality, his drinking and his melancholy. I read the journals hungrily in The New Yorker, when they first appeared, and many of my contemporaries did as well. They were an event. Everyone seemed to be quoting from these installments in the late eighties, from their descriptions of weather, from their synonyms for sadness, from their poignant declarations of love. They were so overpowering, these meditations, so different from the emotional reticence of the short stories, so full of great romantic longing, so swollen with complex and affecting perceptions of Cheever’s wife and family. Where the stories take pride in their thriftiness toward revelation, the journals intoxicate themselves with it: “Assuming that there is some sort of absolution in recording the most tedious and mistaken conduct, I will set down that the following took place.” Or: “My routine has been to write a page or so... no more and mix a drink at ten. This means, since I cannot write and drink, that my working day is very brief.” Or: “I want to come clean on the matter of homosexuality and I think I can.” Or: “It is my wife’s body that I most wish to gentle, it is into her that I most wish to pour myself, but when she is away I seem to have no scruple about spilling it elsewhere. I first see X at the edge of the swimming pool. He is sunbathing, naked, his middle covered by a towel.” Or: “I was sprung from the alcoholic-rehabilitation clinic yesterday. To go from continuous drunkenness to total sobriety is a violent wrench.”
The truth is a powerful thing, especially a posthumous truth. Benjamin Cheever, the author’s son, in his introduction to The Journals of John Cheever tells us that Cheever, late in life, asked him to peruse a volume of the journals in front of him, and that father wept as son read: “At one point I looked up, and I could see that he was crying. He was not sobbing, but tears were running down his cheeks. I didn’t say anything. I went back to reading. When I looked up again, he seemed composed.” To John Cheever, this candor, this illumination of literature in the deadbolted attic of dwarves and madmen and women, the attic of repressions and desperations, must have felt both liberating and terrifying. I can’t imagine that he thought seriously about not publishing these pages.
Does the candor of the journals invalidate indirection as a strategy? Does it give the lie to the formal feints and dodges of “The Jewels of the Cabots” and its colleagues? In 1997, up at Yaddo, where I’m writing this, in Cheever’s old haunt (the wood-panelled bedroom where he often slept not fifty yards from here), I suspect that Cheever’s Journals have now become—as Richard Howard has suggested—his most lasting work. One finds a more violent and indelible evocation of the seesawing of psychology here, though the stories are still magnificent. In the journals, it’s as if the narrator of “The Jewels of the Cabots” finally had the luxury, once and for all, to excise the Cabots from the tale (they are, after all, only a footnote), to let go of St. Botolph’s and call it, say, Ossining, and to begin the arduous adventure of telling the truth. For me, this process up to and through the glow of self-consciousness, from the excellent but icy storytelling of the early stories through the tricky and shape-shifting forms of the novels and the late stories, to the profound investigations of self that mark the posthumous journals, is one of the great literary journeys of this century. It has instructed me.
You will notice, however, that some ambiguities are never resolved (“I open Nabokov and am charmed by this spectrum of ambiguities, this marvellous atmosphere of untruth,” Cheever says in his journals)—ambiguities in the matter of sexuality, ambiguities elsewhere. Always another rock with its subterranean communities to overturn and consider. Always the lie that tells a deeper truth. Always a cache so secreted away as to be invisible. The writer under forty who thinks he knows himself is arrogant indeed. It’s in this climate of individuation that we find the opportunity for the psychic density of indirection, in which our foibles, seeded in the mulch of our youth, begin to express themselves in correlatives, as we are driven to get them down, until we have said what we’re here to say and are left instead with quiet and the stir of time past: “Now I’m undressing to go to bed, and my fatigue is so overwhelming that I am undressing with the haste of a lover.”