The books have been well reviewed in all the important places, and most all the reviewers raise the issue of the relationship between an author’s personal life and his or her work. All, of course, focus on Cheever’s alcoholism and his bisexuality, as well as his generally boorish behavior to his wife and acquaintances, which makes the LA Times reviewer, Susan Salter Reynolds, suggest that it may not be a good idea to read the biography alongside an author’s work.
This is the issue I would like to raise with this post. Having been educated in the Formalist tradition, my own view is that I do not need, nor even necessarily want, to know anything about the author’s life. In my opinion, an author may draw from his or her own life when writing, but other factors—his or her reading, use of language, knowledge of the short fiction tradition, etc.—are more important for my understanding and appreciation of the story. I am just not interested in gossip about the author’s personal foibles or weaknesses—too much like gratuitous prying. What do you think?
Another issue that a rereading of Cheever may raise is whether it is as a novelist or a short-story writer that one may most likely lay a claim on literary importance if one practices both. Is a great novelist unlikely to be a great short-story writer and vice-versa? Most all the reviewers agree that Cheever’s short stories—121 of which were published in The New Yorker-- are more accomplished and more important than his novels. David Propson in The Wall Street Journal says that Cheever’s stories form “an essential part of the postwar canon”—forming a link between F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Updike. Jonathan Dee in Harper’s agrees that none of Cheever’s novels approach the “mastery of the stories.”
Perhaps the most poignant review is the one by John Updike in The New Yorker; for it may be his last review for the magazines. With a title of “Basically Decent,” Updike identifies himself as a reader “often enraptured by Cheever’s prose and an acquaintance who generally enjoyed his lively company.” Updike also focuses more on Cheever’s stories than his novels.
Cheever first made his impact as a short-story writer in the 1950s with The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (1953). He continued to publish important stories for the next two decades, climaxing his career with The Stories of John Cheever winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. Cheever is one of only five writers who have won the Pulitzer for fiction since that prize was instituted in 1948: Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1966), Collected Stories of Jean Stafford (1970), A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler (1993), and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000).
I went back to my battered red paperback of The Collected Stories and re-read the following: “The Enormous Radio,” “O Youth and Beauty,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” The Country Husband,” The Death of Justina,” and “The Swimmer.”
I did not feel the same pleasure in reading these stories as I did when I first discovered them many years ago. “The Enormous Radio” and “The Torch Song,” two of Cheever’s Hawthorne-like fables, seemed too easy and predictable for me this time around. “Oh Youth and Beauty” and “The Country Husband,” two of Cheever’s more realistic stories seemed to focus on stereotyped characters. Is this because I have read so many stories since I first read Cheever that I am jaded? Or are these stories just a bit too conventional? Maybe so many other writers since Cheever have modeled their works after him that I now have that strange feeling that what once was so original now seems the copy. I made the terrible mistake of rereading Catcher in the Rye a few years ago. Holden, who I once so admired, I now thought was a smart-mouthed brat. I wish I had not reread it. I wanted to hold on to Holden.
The best-known story from Cheever's late collection, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964), is "The Swimmer," which combines a common theme of earlier Cheever stories--middle-aged men trying to hold on to youth and some meaningful place in life--with his penchant for the fantastic seen in such early stories as "The Enormous Radio."
The complexity of this story of a man's decision to swim home from a party through his neighbors' swimming pools derives from its subtle combination of fantasy and reality. Although the action is presented as a real event, clues increasingly point to a distortion of time in the story. Because the protagonist must be allowed to believe that his metaphoric swim through the future and past is an actual swim in the present, the reader is never sure which events in the story are real and which are fantasy. The metaphoric nature of the swim is suggested by Cheever's presenting the protagonist as a legendary explorer and the pools as a "the river of life."
Frank Perry directed a screen play by Eleanor Perry of the story in 1968, featuring a still statuesque (maybe just a bit gone to middle-age) Burt Lancaster as the protagonist Ned. The film focuses very nicely on a character trying to transform himself into a legend, keeping the reader somewhat unsure if he or she is witnessing reality, a fantasy, or a fable. If you ever teach short fiction and film, it is a good film with which to explore this ambiguity.