Monday, May 28, 2012
Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of the American writer, John Cheever. Cheever (like Raymond Carver) specialized in the short story, and like Carver he wrote sketches of everyday life. His stories had an elegant simplicity and presented middle class suburbia as a place of sterility and coldness, manicured and polite but often dangerous and destructive to the newcomer or the outsider.
My first exposure to Cheever's haunting storytelling (though I didn't know it at the time) was via the film version of his story 'The Swimmer' starring Burt Lancaster. Cheever's short story had originally appeared in the New Yorker magazine in July, 1964. A man spends the entire story in swimming trunks, stopping in at every house with a swimming pool, telling people he's 'Swimming my way home.' The story starts with the character a braggart and popular wherever he goes, but the closer he gets to home the darker the encounters become and people shun him. None of this is explained in exposition but is shown in small disturbing scenes (coming across a hot dog wagon he knows he owns, which is now in someone else's yard, encounters with people he doesn't remember but they recognize him and shy away.) The final scene of the film when Lancaster arrives home to find it locked and boarded up with a cold wind blowing leaves in icy circles is unforgettable. He slowly sinks to a fetal position in the doorway. I was about 7 years old when I saw that and it has stayed with me to this day.
Cheever's original thinking about The Swimmer filled 150 pages of his notebooks, which he whittled down into a short story. In his formative sketches he was thinking of the classical story of Narcissus, who died gazing at his reflection in a pool of water. This becomes a thematic metaphor for the story as a whole.
His stories worked mainly by creating relationships of apparent civility but with worrying undercurrents. In that way he was the precursor to Carver, though Carver's cast of characters were a couple of steps down the social ladder from Cheever's. The magazine format with its generous wordcount allowed Cheever room to develop his narratives beyond the 'slice of life' (which he apparently disliked) into morality tales contrasting characters outer success with inner demons, in deft, subtle strokes.
Among his novels, 'Falconer' (1977) set in a prison, but metaphoric of society as a whole, is a classic.
Here is an article from The Telegraph in the U.K. about Cheever and his legacy.