Book Appreciation: Novelist and Short Story Writer John Cheever At 100 — America’s Chekhov?
May 27th marked what would have been the 100th anniversary of writer John Cheever’s birth. (He was born in Quincy, MA.) June 18th marks the 30th anniversary of his death.
By Kyle Clauss
When I was in high school, I heard a piece on NPR about John Cheever and the Library of America’s then newly released volumes of his novels and short stories. The segment was a comprehensive profile of the late writer’s life, supplemented with intimate details taken from Susan Cheever’s biography of her father. What truly struck me were the snippets from an old Harper-Collins recording session of Cheever reading his 1960 short story “The Death of Justina.” He drawled in his shaky “debutante accent,” as Lauren Bacall once described it, and his words carried a sort of frustrated eloquence and an aching beauty. The next day, I asked my English teacher what she knew about him.
“He’s fantastic. Really dark and out there. You’d love him.” After class, I went directly to the library and picked up a copy of The Stories of John Cheever.
In “The Death of Justina,” Moses, an alcoholic jingle-writer, attempts to bury the corpse of his wife’s cousin Justina, who suddenly died on the couple’s sofa one afternoon in the midst of a lunch party. Conflict arises when the Village Council’s zoning laws prohibit Moses from giving Justina a proper burial in his native Zone B. According to the town’s mayor, “You can’t bury anything in Zone B. You can’t even bury a cat.” His doctor suggests ferrying the body over to Zone C. Moses, of course, is appalled.
“The Death of Justina” is more than a macabre, “really dark and out there” account of a man’s efforts to dispose of his wife’s loved one in the face of bureaucratic obstacles. The story is filled with eloquent meditations on the protagonist’s struggles with mortality and alcoholism, and these interludes are reflections of Cheever’s personal demons. In one passage of Cheever, A Life, biographer Blake Bailey details Cheever’s time as a professor at Boston University, where he nearly drank himself to oblivion in his brownstone on Bay State Road. On numerous occasions, his friends, colleagues, and even a graduate student would stop by his residence to make sure he was at least dressed, albeit drunk to the point of incoherence.
The 1974–75 academic year proved turbulent for Cheever, who hated Boston University, “a fourth-rate university” in an “utterly, utterly dismal part of Boston.” He resigned and entered rehab in April 1975. Two years later, Cheever published Falconer, his most commercially successful novel, which landed him on the cover of Newsweek. In 1978, The Stories of John Cheever was released, and John Leonard, editor of The New York Times Book Review, deemed Cheever “the Chekhov of the suburbs.” Since then, this epithet has become standard flap copy on every edition of Cheever. Though it is doubtful Chekhov was as bedeviled a personality as Cheever—Bailey notes that during his final departure from Boston, Cheever had “drunk a bottle of scotch and then urinated into the empty bottle” in the car—Leonard’s comparison is understandable but flawed.
Cheever’s tales share the deft fluidity of Chekhov’s stories. Both writers have the same sharp eye for the telling and lyrical detail, drawing on a nimble economy of words to achieve a compact vision that combines stunning realism and emotional complexity. But the comparison between Cheever and Chekhov, though approximate, is ultimately imperfect. In a letter to his brother, Chekhov outlined what he believed were six principles essential to the construction of a “good story.” They are
Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature;
Truthful descriptions of persons and objects;
Audacity and originality (flee the stereotype);
To be Cheeveresque is to grapple with the political, social, spiritual, and economic frustrations of the typical American suburban community. In fact, Cheever’s stories possess a Tolstoyan—not Chekhovian—disdain for the superficiality and snobbery that is so often characteristic of middle- to upper-class social circles. Moreover, his disdain leans toward “lengthy verbiage” rather than “extreme brevity.” Many of Chekhov’s stories are subtly dramatic rather than didactic—they show rather than tell. In the case of Cheever, the reader is made very aware of his attitudes toward a particular character, setting, or social context. Neither approach is fundamentally better than the other, but they are considerably different. To call Cheever “the Chekhov of the suburbs” is to call Kurt Vonnegut “the Gogol of Indiana” or Woody Allen “the Bergman of Manhattan”—a gross oversimplification of the artist’s unique style.
Cheever’s work has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity, and it comes at a puzzling time. “It would be easy to say that this was not a good decade for the short story,” said Heidi Pitlor in the foreword of the 2010 edition of The Best American Short Stories. With many publications dropping short fiction altogether—GQ, Elle, Redbook, Ms., and Seventeen, as Pitlor notes—the short story’s place in today’s literary world is questioned by many. The recent deaths of J. D. Salinger, Saul Bellows, and John Updike have dealt the art form a considerable blow, leaving a gaping vacuum in their wake. In his 1978 essay “Why I Write Short Stories,” Cheever not only confesses to having written the bulk of his work in his underwear but reveals what lay at the heart of the short story’s appeal:
Who reads short stories? one is asked, and I like to think that they are read by men and women in the dentist’s office, waiting to be called to the chair; they are read on transcontinental plane trips instead of watching a banal and vulgar film spin out the time between our coasts; they are read by discerning and well-informed men and women who seem to feel that narrative fiction can contribute to our understanding of one another and the sometimes bewildering world around us.
This defense of the story rings true and explains, at least partly, why Cheever’s work continues to resonate. Readers’ spare time and attention spans have shrunk to an unprecedented degree. We are now perpetually on the go, and Cheever notes that the short story is “the literature of the nomad.” “Bewildering” is an understated description of the world around us, given the varieties of horror and triviality brought directly to our doorsteps by the advances made in information-sharing technology. Now, more than ever, readers wish to enjoy a little bit of beauty, even and especially if it can be squeezed between their afternoon latte and their 5:30 commuter rail train home.