The Stories of John Cheever

by Jess

Cheever is hailed as “the Ovid of Ossining,” “the Dante of suburbia,” and “the Chekhov of the exurbs.”  Me — I wouldn’t rank him up there quite so high, maybe.

The main problem I had with the thick tome of his collected stories was repetition, which wouldn’t have been such a problem if his stories weren’t all about such snobs.  Every story focuses on a family with a summer home on the coast, a nanny, a cook, and a husband who becomes very irate if dinner isn’t ready when he gets home from work.  I can only gag over so much of that!

But it comes as no surprise, really.  After all, that’s what Cheever is known for.  As Paul Gray notes in an old Time review, “Unquestionably, his wealthy New Yorkers and suburbanites have much in common. The author describes them in one story as ‘the company of those people who were most free to develop their gifts.’ These fortunate few are much more significant than critics seeking raw social realism will admit. …  And their creator is less interested in his characters as rounded individuals than in the awful, comic and occasionally joyous ways they bungle their opportunities.”  They aren’t quite grotesques, but they never take on life and lift off the page; they are characters, vessels, and nothing more.

Cheever’s stories are keenly observed, sort of human nature under a microscope.  They bear close reading or you risk missing the small linchpin that holds the story together and gives it meaning.  I thought some of the stories in the collection were quite good (“The Enormous Radio,” one of his well-known stories, was probably my favorite), whereas others seemed rather incomplete; they were simply vignettes instead of fully developed stories.

The eNotes summary of The Stories of John Cheever purports that the book shows “Cheever’s mastery of the short story genre and his ability to show compassion and understanding for human emotion when confronted with moral dilemma in the chaos of modern life.”

There’s something still bothering me, though, keeping me from fully recommending Cheever’s stories, that I’m having trouble pinpointing exactly.  I can’t deny he was a master of the genre, and his stories are excellently crafted, but perhaps it’s simply that the genre itself has changed so much since Cheever wrote the stories in this collection, that I am left unsatisfied after finishing it.  It’s almost as though it’s not enough anymore to write about the chaos of modern life — the chaos is a given.  We live and breathe chaos these days; we are sustained by it.  Perhaps postmodernism has ruined me.

Or perhaps it’s just that most of his stories are, as Bret Johnston writes in a New York Times review of Cheever’s biography, “downhearted.”  I like depressing literature, and I love a good old-fashioned sad ending, but Cheever’s stories are, much like the man’s own tortured personal life, for the most part completely unredeeming.  And if you’re going to write about the blues, at least do it beautifully, but Cheever’s prose isn’t anything spectacular.  It’s rather like his characters: normal, middle class, clinging to respectability.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Cheever’s work, especially if you can change my mind.  Literature is the only area of life in which I love to be proved wrong!