John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever (1978)
Through poor planning on my part , I found myself at the cottage with nothing to read over the long weekend. This book has been on the shelf there for years, and, seeing from the cover that it was a “majestic” nationwide bestseller (what makes a bestseller majestic? I wondered. I must know!), I gave it a try.
Cheever is one of those mid-century American fiction writers that I’ve heard of but never actually read, although I feel like I’ve been confronted with this particular copy of his stories for as long as I can remember (more on that below). I knew of “The Swimmer” (it was even made into a Burt Lancaster movie), and with nothing else to read I started there. After that I skipped around, reading stories based on their titles (Best Title Winner: “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear”). I should say that I have no idea how many references to Canada there are in this book, since I haven’t read anywhere near all of it, but in the eight or ten stories I read, I found two.
“The Enormous Radio”
This story is about Jim and Irene Westcott, a couple who live in a New York apartment. Their tastes run to classical music, and Jim buys his wife a new radio as a present. She discovers that the radio is so sensitive that it picks up various forms of interference from the apartment building; after several repairs, Jim and Irene find that by changing the station, they can listen in on conversations from other apartments in their building:
The Westcotts overheard that evening a monologue on salmon fishing in Canada, a bridge game, running commentary on home movies of what had apparently been a fortnight at Sea Island, and a bitter family quarrel about an overdraft at the bank. (42)
The idea of Canada as a salmon fishing destination has come up before. Here, along with Sea Island, it seems to suggest the sort of vacations that were considered desirable by upper middle class, mid-century Americans, and perhaps the sort of vacation the Westcotts aspire to but can’t afford. (Later in the story Irene looks at the occupants of the building elevator and wonders which one had been to Sea Island.) We might read salmon fishing in Canada as a marker of class or success: the better-off can afford the cost of a getaway to another country to fish, while the rest have to make to with whatever is closer to hand. And perhaps we can assume that the salmon fishing is better in Canada (why else take the trouble to go there?), which indicates that Canada is still seen as a more unspoiled, wilderness nation where the incursions of suburbia have not destroyed the opportunities for sport fishing.
This story follows Victor and Theresa Mackenzie, a couple who work in the homes of the rich, as they move from house to house, seeking a place that will make them happy. In this scene, Victor comes in and finds Theresa in tears, saying she is “homesick.”
It was, even for Victor, a difficult remark to interpret. Their only home then was a one-room apartment in the city, which, with its kitchenette and studio couch, seemed oddly youthful and transitory for these grandparents. If Theresa was homesick, it could only be for a collection of parts of houses. She must have meant something else.
“Then we’ll go,” he said. “We’ll leave first thing in the morning.” And then, seeing how happy his words had made her, he went on. “We’ll get into the car and we’ll drive and we’ll drive and we’ll drive. We’ll go to Canada.” (227-8)
Canada’s placement as the culmination of the phrase “drive and drive and drive” suggests its distance, and also that going there is the culmination of some sort of almost-crazy scheme or near-desperate act. Victor seems to arrive at the suggestion of Canada through his wife’s happiness at the thought of getting away from where they are, and Canada is simply the end point of his imagination, the furthest place he can think of going.
For the Mackenzies, our country carries associations that are familiar to us: it is a place to escape to, and a place where the couple can make a fresh start on their lives. There may also be a hint of escaping from the trap of social stratification, as the story portrays the Mackenzies as the sort of people who go through life somewhat helplessly, buffeted by the whims of the rich.
So as far as these two stories are concerned, at least, we can say that Cheever presents a fairly conventional view of Canada: a country where one can get away for some fishing, wilder and more unspoiled than the U.S., and a place that offers a chance at a new beginning for those who feel trapped by their position in U.S. society.
I should perhaps add that the Mackenzies never actually make it to Canada, stopping and settling in at the home of another wealthy American before they reach the Quebec border. You can make of that what you will.
The Peregrinations of a Book: A Reflection of Literary Reputation? (Personal/Familial, Highly Subjective, Unrelated to Canada)
As I mentioned above, I feel as if I have been seeing this book for most of my life. It’s really my parents’ book, not mine, and this picture may give you some sense of its age:
This Ballantine paperback was first published in 1980, and as you can see, it has one of those marvellously ingrown spines that paperbacks of a certain thickness get as they age. At the time it was published, it must have been considered an “important” book that members of the middle class who aspired to cultural literacy ought to read. The puff quotes support this view: among the expected “magical” and “dazzling” and “profound and daring,” no less an authority than The New York Times said:
Not merely the publishing event of the “season” but a grand occasion in English literature.
That, to me, is a fascinating quote: it must have been written at essentially the time the book was first published, when Cheever was at the height of his fame, but look at the way the word “season” has been put in quotation marks. The word, and the phrase “event of the season,” both drip with insider consciousness and carry associations of what is fashionable at the moment but unlikely to endure. This is just a puff quote, presumably lifted from a contemporary review, and yet it already rings with defensiveness, and seems to be trying to refute an implied argument that Cheever is the darling of literary society types, but not someone that anyone outside the New York cocktail circuit would bother to read, and certainly not someone who will be read by future generations.
When I looked at the book a little more closely, I found much of the puffery (which was plentiful) had a defensive tone. Consider this, from the back cover:
Like radiant, graceful chapters of the novel that is the American heart, THE STORIES OF JOHN CHEEVER live in the community of emotions and dreams.
High praise, certainly — but in claiming that, collected together, Cheever’s stories form a “novel that is the American heart,” it also feels calculated to refute the (again implied) argument that a collection of short stories is somehow less significant or worthy of attention than a novel.
My personal history with this book stretches back almost as far as I can remember. I first started seeing it in my parents’ living room, where it seemed to be inevitably accompanied by Chesapeake by James Michener, two enormous paperbacks that, at that time, represented to me the mysterious world of books read by grown-ups.
At some point the Cheever, along with Chesapeake, migrated to the basement; apparently it was no longer a book that people displayed in their living rooms, as if to say, “Check.” Or perhaps my parents, not having made their way through it, stashed it down there, telling themselves they would get to it later. At some point it made its way to the cottage — I think it’s been there for the last fifteen or twenty years — but I doubt it was ever read there because, while I have a very clear memory of its chubby red presence on the shelf, I can’t recall ever having seen it off the shelf. There are also a couple of ancient bookmarks — one an Air Canada boarding pass from 1985 — stranded in the first 150 pages, suggesting the abandonment of the book rather than engagement with it. In my family, at least, The Stories of John Cheever is good enough to while away an hour on the dock if you’re stranded there with nothing better to read (nobody’s fault but mine, as they say), but not something anyone actually plans to read. (The books you actively intend to read are the ones you bring with you to the cottage, while the books you leave there are the ones that no longer hold any interest.)
But what I wonder is, does my family’s gradual neglect of this book, as it passed from living room (“Everyone’s reading it”) to basement (“We’ll get around to it soon”) to cottage (“Maybe someone will pick it up some rainy day”), run parallel with a similar process regarding Cheever’s reputation? Or does it merely indicate that my family, at least, weren’t the serious readers of literature they wanted to be — that they weren’t quite “up to” Cheever?
I don’t know a lot about the state of Cheever’s reputation; his books are still in print (including a recent Library of America edition), which is more than can be said for a lot of writers. And yet, in the course of all the literary conversations I can recall (admittedly a highly subjective criterion, but still, it’s something), I’ve never heard Cheever’s name mentioned. Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Pynchon (well, maybe I was the one bringing him up), Elkin, Malamud, Gaddis, Gass — they’ve all been mentioned to me by various people, at various times, as “must reads”. But never Cheever.
So were the authors of the puff quotes right to defend Cheever against the implied criticism of his detractors? Or have the detractors been proven correct, and Cheever’s work revealed itself as “of his time, but not for all time”? Does anyone read Cheever anymore?