“O City of Broken Dreams” was first published in the January 24, 1948 issue of The New Yorker and is collected in John Cheever’s The Stories of John Cheever. Click here for reviews of other John Cheever stories.
John Cheever’s collected stories are arranged nearly, but not quite, in chronological order. The book begins with 1951’s “Goodbye, My Brother,” arguably his most famous story, before heading back to 1947. The rest of the stories run more or less in the order they were first published in The New Yorker.
The credit for the story selection belongs with Cheever’s editor, Robert Gottlieb, who persuaded the author that there would be a demand for a career-spanning volume, especially since most of the previous collections were out of print. Even though the sequencing isn’t totally random, Gottlieb still makes some deft choices in presenting certain stories after others.
“The Enormous Radio” (see my review here) ended with a vicious argument between a status-obsessed couple. In “O City of Broken Dreams,” which pretty much lays out its trajectory in the title, we get a much different kind of family. I doubt this transition was incidental.
When “O City” begins, the Malloys — Evarts, his wife Alice, and their daughter Mildred-Rose — are on a train from Chicago to New York. Evarts, he tells the conductor, has written the first act of a play based on a local character named Mama Finelli. He has a meeting with New York producer Tracey Murchison, who was in the Malloys’ hometown of Wentworth, Indiana, giving a lecture about the dearth of young playwrights when Alice strong-armed the play into his hands.
Cheever establishes quickly the Malloys’ naivete and utter lack of guile. As the Hudson River rolls into view, Alice, wearing the “new” gloves “she had been given for Christmas ten years ago,” asks her husband:
“Why do they call it the rind of America?”
“The Rhine,” Evarts said. “Not the rind.”
If the malapropism of New York City as an impenetrable outer shell that keeps outsiders away seems a bit on-the-nose, it’s still effective in portending the Malloys’ fate.
What follows is something like a fable about the innocent playwright being corrupted by the indignities and temptations of big-city show business. Evarts has his meeting with Murchison, who promises him the moon and introduces him to his wife, a famous actress named Madge, who will star in the play.
Later that evening, the Malloys — minus young Mildred-Rose, who is being watched by their hotel’s bellhop — attend a party at the Murchisons’. A group of movie stars surround a piano, nobody taking up their host’s request for a song. Finally, with what Evarts perceives as bitterness, Murchison asks Alice.
Alice, who had taken singing lessons as a child and would never turn down an invitation to perform at a party, begins singing. At first it goes well: her voice is pitched perfectly and the audience is attentive; she is connecting with them, Evarts feels: “Many of them had come from towns as small as Wentworth [. . .] they were good-hearted people.”
Then, Evarts realizes with rising dread what Alice is planning: she was taught years ago to end her performances with a dramatic fall to the ground, an ordinarily quaint piece of kitsch that Evarts knows will be ridiculed by the sophisticated audience here. Cheever’s heartbreaking rendering of this scene is the whole story in miniature:
Alice took a quick breath and attacked the last verse. Evarts had begun to sweat so freely that the brine got into his eyes. “I’ll lay me doun and dee,” he heard her sing; he heard the loud crash as she hit the floor; he heard the screams of helpless laughter, the tobacco coughs, and the oaths of a woman who laughed so hard she broke her pearl bib. The Murchisons’ guests seemed bewitched. They wept, they shook, they stooped, they slapped one another on the back, and walked, like the demented, in circles. When Evarts faced the scene, Alice was sitting on the floor. He helped her to her feet. “Come, darling,” he said. “Come.” With his arm he led her into the hall.
“Didn’t they like my song?” she asked. She began to cry.
“It doesn’t matter, my darling,” Evarts said, “it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.”
Evarts knows what Alice does not yet: the Murchisons and their ilk will never take the Malloys seriously, will always judge them as a couple of easy marks from the Midwest, will never include them in their privileged inner circle.
The next morning Evarts meets with another agency, whose representative, Charlie Hauser, sweet-talks Evarts with more promises and name-dropping. He later meets the would-be star of this production, Susan Hewitt, and is so enchanted with her he presumes to be in love with her by the end of the afternoon.
But by then Evarts’ circumstances have changed; not only is Murchison planning to sue for breach of contract, the producer has persuaded the subject of Evarts’ play, Mama Finelli, to come to New York “on a flying machine” to sue him for libel.
The story ends with the Malloys high-tailing it out of town, but interestingly, Cheever’s narrator doesn’t follow them:
The Malloys may have left the train in Chicago and gone back to Wentworth. It is not hard to imagine their homecoming, for they would be welcomed by their friends and relations, although their stories may not be believed. Or they may have changed, at Chicago, for a train to the West, and this, to tell the truth, is easier to imagine. One can see them playing hearts in the lounge car and eating cheese sandwiches in the railroad stations as they traveled through Kansas and Nebraska — over the mountains and on to the Coast.
This lovely speculative ending makes the story feel even more like a parable. But unlike the narration up to this point, which has portrayed the Malloys as a pitiable family in over their heads, I am convinced this is intended to be a happy ending; pending lawsuits aside, the Malloys either return home into the welcoming and unjaded hands of their community, or they travel farther west, perhaps to Hollywood, still pursuing their dreams and looking by all appearances a grateful and happy family.
It is also a complete projection and ends up raising questions about who this narrator truly is. This might be the first example of what could be called the John Cheever narrator, where the author seems to place himself into the stories. We’ll be seeing more of it as we go on.
“O City of Broken Dreams” may not be Cheever’s subtlest statement, but I find it moving in its simplicity and a welcome follow-up to its bleaker predecessor.