The Stories of John Cheever
by John Cheever
A review by Ann Ellenbecker
Short stories generally irritate me, leaving me underwhelmed and frustrated at
what a only a few pages have to offer. Recently, however, I saw an article by
Michael Chabon citing John Cheever's "The Swimmer" as a favorite of his enough
of a recommendation to convince me to have another go at it. Thankfully, my expectations
were met with surprise.
The swimmer, Ned Merrill, "might have been compared to a summer's day, particularly
the last hours of one." While lazing poolside at a friend's party, Ned decides
to swim home, though there are no waterways connecting the two houses. Instead
he plans on using the neighborhood swimming pools to make the eight-and-a-half-mile
journey. The narration lends a sense of adventure Ned is a pioneer charting
new territory and making discoveries at every bend. The discoveries, however,
grow more personal and confusing to him as the trip progresses. At a steady
clip, facts become cloudier and friends and neighbors stranger.
With Cheever's beautiful descriptions, we feel the hours pass as a hot summer afternoon turns into a chill autumn evening. Through the progression of Ned's encounters, the story carries an aura of melancholy. Eerily, the mystery unfolds until Ned's journey is complete and a dusky light is shed on the truth.
I finished the story remarkably satisfied, but piqued, and randomly began to consume the stories one after another. This collection contains pieces spanning more than thirty years of Cheever's career. He writes old-fashioned stories with dateless appeal covering themes of water, light, and morality, industry and failure, romantic love and sadness. In Cheever's own words:
"These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city
of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman
quartets from a radio in the corner of the stationery store, and when almost
everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers
who woke the world coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and
perform obsolete dance steps like "the Cleveland Chicken," sail for Europe
on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods
were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are."
One of the earlier works in the collection, "Goodbye, My Brother," is wrought with his recurrent themes of light and nostalgia. Unlike "The Swimmer," "Goodbye, My Brother" is told in first person, a heart-rending, poignant account of the narrator's relationship with his youngest brother, Lawrence. The Pommeroy family meets at their summer house on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. The four grown children and their families join their widowed mother for this summer ritual, which is a special occasion, as they haven't seen Lawrence in four years.
The narrator experiences the visit as tender and warm, which contrasts with Lawrence's perennial exasperation with his family. For example, at the age of sixteen, he labeled his mother as "frivolous, mischievous, destructive, and overly strong." But, the narrator believes this projection to be the result of Lawrence's basic refusal to embrace life, which leads to the realization that the lifelong rift between the brothers may always remain. The sadness that accompanies this conclusion is palpable.
The philosophical difference bewteen the brothers is acknowledged early in the story:
"Then I remembered Lawrence's sensitivity to time and his sentiments and opinions
about our feelings for the past. I heard him say, years ago, that we and our
friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with
the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was
a happier and simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight
was a measure of this irremediable failure."
This lyrical description could be taken as a distillation of this collection as a whole. It's no wonder Cheever claimed "Goodbye, My Brother" was among his greatest literary achievements.