Let me begin by thanking Trevor for this opportunity to contribute to his blog. The Mookse and the Gripes has become a go-to source for serious discussion of current and classic literature from around the globe, and I’m excited to be a part of it.
Over the last couple years, I have been reading through Time Magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923, the year of Time’s first issue, and in January I wrote about John Cheever’s Falconer (click here). As I read that book, I had the impression that while individual chapters worked tremendously well, taken together they didn’t add up to a cohesive whole, which made complete sense given his reputation as one of our foremost short story writers. I realized that a true judgment of Cheever couldn’t be made without consulting the stories. I needed to remedy this gap.
So I’ve begun working my way through the big red book, story by story. The experience so far has been highly rewarding, and I’m hopeful that digging inside some of the stories here will deepen not only my appreciation for Cheever’s craft but might also persuade readers of this blog to (re)discover this great American author for themselves.
Because, quite frankly, promoting John Cheever has become an essential act of public service, and time is of the essence.
I made the point in my post that, unlike many of his contemporaries (Updike, Roth, Bellow, et. al), whose works remain in steady circulation, Cheever has already begun to be forgotten, something that would have been unthinkable just 30 years ago.
When Cheever died in 1982, his stature was never higher: in the last five years of his life, he had finally rid himself of his legendary alcoholism and published his long-gestating novel Falconer. Then came the collected stories a year later to rapturous acclaim. That mammoth anthology with the iconic cover became a staple on any serious bookworm’s shelf.
Mention his name now, though, and most people know only the personal details. Cheever’s voluminous journals, published posthumously, revealed what any reader of Falconer might have presumed about his latent sexuality, something later immortalized to hilarious effect on an episode of Seinfeld.
Another possible reason for his decline might be his default subject matter. Who wants to read story after stuffy story set in Cheever-land, a place populated by WASPy suburban drunks in their swanky summer homes — especially when we have Mad Men to quench that thirst?
The joy in going through this collection has been discovering how wrong this line of thinking is. Though he famously had no use for postmodern techniques or “experimental” writing, Cheever’s stories constantly subvert your expectations of what you believe a Cheever story will be.
So that is what this series of posts will aim to do, shed some light on these classic stories and, more than anything, get people reading Cheever! For context, I will be consulting Blake Bailey’s invaluable recent biography, Cheever: A Life, as well as other materials from my public library. Please join me! I look forward to some good conversation.
First up: “The Enormous Radio”