The John Cheever Audio Collection
“The deep joy we take in the company of people with whom we have just recently fallen in love is undisguisable.” – John Cheever
“The telling of lies is a sort of sleight of hand that displays our deepest feelings about life.” – John Cheever in a 1969 interview with the Paris Review
“I still lack a political, religious and philosophical world view—I change it every month—and so I’ll have to limit myself to descriptions of how my heroes love, marry, give birth, die, and how they speak. – Anton Chekhov at age 28
John Cheever could very well have written the above sentence from Anton Chekhov. In his stories Cheever was the chronicler of everyday suburban life in the middle of the twentieth century. Cheever’s suburbia is about as far removed from our suburbs of today as was the French royal court in the sixteenth century (Forgive me, I’m also reading ‘The Princess of Cleves’ by Madame de Lafayette). For one thing Cheever’s suburb is distinctly upper class where nearly every house has a swimming pool. Each summer weekend there are cocktail parties by the swimming pools where the neighbors are invited. And just like at the French royal court, the rich people in Cheever’s stories are fascinated by and indulge in extra-marital and illicit love affairs.
Cheever’s stories are realistic mixed with a heavy dose of irony. To make my point about irony, I will examine one story in particular, “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow”. The story begins with a couple named the Pasterns admiring their brand new nuclear fallout shelter. This fixes the story in time as there was a fad in the early Sixties for home owners to build their own fallout shelters. Then Mrs. Pastern tells her husband to visit two homes to collect for her charity, since the people were not there when she went around the first time. Mr. Pastern goes to the Flanagan’s where only the Mrs. is home. She invites him in for drinks and after six drinks, she invites him upstairs to her bedroom. Mr. Pastern has done this kind of thing many times before, but Mrs. Flanagan says, “I’ve never done this before.” Mr. Pastern and Mrs. Flanagan get together a few more times, and then Mrs. Flanagan makes a demand on him. She wants a key to his fallout shelter, and he winds up giving her a key. Mrs. Pastern finds out about this gift through the neighborhood gossip. Mrs. Pastern has been aware of his many infidelities before and forgiven him to some extent. However Mrs. Pastern can not forgive him for giving this strange woman the key to their own fallout shelter. .
Nearly every story in this Cheever collection has some ironic twist. Sometimes you feel that Cheever is laughing at his suburban characters. It is a gentle humane laughter, but he does make his points. It is Cheever’s imagination that takes these stories several steps above straight realism to somewhere more poignant and meaningful. It is Cheever’s sense of irony and parody as well as the energy of his writing that make each of these stories an event in itself. It is amazing how Cheever can capture such a strong sense of a person’s or persons’ lives within ten to twenty pages.
This is the year of John Cheever’s centenary. I listened to each of the twelve stories in this audio collection twice. Even though most of the stories have a suburban setting, each is a world onto itself, totally different from the rest. As I said before, these stories go well beyond realism into irony, parody, and symbolism. As many of the famous writers of the middle and late twentieth century fall by the wayside, John Cheever will remain part of the literary canon.