CHEEVER’S ART OF THE DEVASTATING PHRASE
Posted by Brad Leithauser
The New Yorker, May 31, 2012
Had he lived, John Cheever would have turned a hundred this week. A lifelong admirer of his work, I find myself again returning to one of my least favorite Cheever stories, “Boy in Rome.” Delivered through the unconvincing voice of a teen-age American boy living with his vapid expatriate mother in a Roman villa, it unfolds an overlong yarn of a wastrel writer, a bogus princess named Tavola-Calda (or “Hot Table”—an Italian term for cafeteria or diner), and the bungled smuggling of a Renaissance painting. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever read a story by Cheever that failed to offer authentic rewards, large or small, and a paragraph toward the close of “Boy in Rome” haunts me.
The paragraph is a modest island, surrounded on either side by a sea of white space and wholly contained within the gently curving shores of a pair of parentheses. “But I am not a boy in Rome,” it begins. A new voice has circumspectly, wistfully intruded on the young man’s narration. The speaker identifies himself as “a grown man in the old prison and river town of Ossining, swatting hornets on this autumn afternoon with a rolled-up newspaper.” This is no authorial surrogate; this is John Cheever, stepping off the page to introduce himself.
This literary device may sound potentially tiresome—some self-conscious preening, a bit of postmodern flummery. But those who love Cheever’s fiction will recognize here a familiar, defining trait: he was forever emerging from two dimensions into three, from the rectangle of the page into the cubic complexities of actual life. Time and again, an unexpected “I” surfaces in his stories, as the perspective forcibly shifts to accommodate the presence of a sly and witty observer. He was restless, and felt the page confined him. As that parenthetical insertion of himself into “Boy in Rome” suggests, he was impatient with plot. In his stories, the trappings of narrative tend to fall away, and in “Boy in Rome” we’re left with some artfully turned self-inquiries: “Why, never having received from my parents anything but affection and understanding, should I invent a grotesque old man, a foreign grave, and a foolish mother? What is the incurable loneliness that makes me want to pose as a fatherless child in a cold wind…?”
Cheever relished the creation of chaos—especially the placing of keenly idiosyncratic characters into situations of ramifying turmoil—but his denouements tended to be startlingly abrupt, especially in some of his best-known stories (“The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” “The Angel of the Bridge,” “The Country Husband”). He was temperamentally far better suited to presenting problems than to portraying solutions—one of many reasons why his short fiction is more gratifying than his novels, where the larger form often requires that consequences be responsibly, painstakingly chronicled.
The more you read Cheever, the more you feel his best work is often less about plot than about language—about poetry in the broadest sense. You feel, too, the vivid immediacy, and the turbulent, benign influence of a number of authors—particularly Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Flaubert, and James. All four were masterly stylists, and at the end of the day Cheever’s prime accomplishment may be stylistic: the construction of something readily identifiable as a Cheever paragraph, a Cheever sentence, even a Cheever phrase.
He achieved a style that was surpassingly nuanced and nimble, and devoted it mostly to the happy marrying of lyrical and absurd comical effects. His style was a complex amalgam—a blending of heterogeneous attitudes, a rapid shifting (sometimes too rapid) of viewpoint and diction. His vocabulary was surpassingly resourceful. Of all the wonderful American short-story writers of the twentieth century, Cheever strikes me as the most dependable supplier of unlikely, often unflashy, and yet devastatingly apt word choices. Here are a few examples (italics my own) of his embedding into a sentence a word or phrase that any poet might envy: “a gentle and excursive mountain shower”; “I have cheerfully praised the evening sky hanging beyond the disheveled and expatriated palm trees on Doheny Boulevard”; “where one heard in the sounds of a summer rain the prehistoric promises of love, peacefulness, and beauty”; “her countenance was long, vacant, and weakly lighted”; “[The dog] was as black as coal, with a long, alert, intelligent, rakehell face”; “There is something universal about being stood up in a city restaurant between one and two—a spiritual no-man’s-land, whose blasted trees, entrenchments and ratholes we all share, disarmed by the gullibility of our hearts.” Many of his best effects are quiet and slow to emerge. In what may be his greatest story, “The Swimmer,” the protagonist, Neddy Merrill, contemplates a neighbor in swim trunks who has undergone extensive abdominal surgery: “Gone was his navel, and what, Neddy thought, would the roving hand, bed-checking one’s gifts at 3 A.M., make of a belly with no navel, no link to birth, this breach in the succession.” It’s a sufficiently spooky moment that a reader may not readily appreciate how strange and wonderful a verb-choice is “bed-checking,” how unexpected and ravagingly sad is “gifts.”
A proper study of Cheever’s style could fill a book, but for now I’ll limit myself to two further traits. Cheever loved to pair adjectives in productive and surprising ways. He was especially fond of constructions in which at least one term, and sometimes both, carried a danger of high-flown orotundity: “the irresistible and titanic voice of life itself”; “an inestimable and wayward passion”; “something preposterous and ascendant”; “an air of adamant and fetid sweetness”; “stubborn and irreducible proof of man’s determination to excel”; “some marvelous and obdurate part of myself.” We learn that one character’s “sense of these aspects of privacy was scrupulous and immutable” and that another’s “imagination remained resilient and fertile.” The high-flown adjective pair was for Cheever what the incongruous adjective triplet (“orange, bland, ambassadorial”) was to Robert Lowell: an opportunity to record a legible signature in an extremely confined space. You come upon a sentence like this—“The world lies before us like a bewildering and stupendous dream”—and sense that these cadences, this particular lovely note of vaunting applause, had to come from Cheever’s hand.
Still more Cheeveresque, if possible, is his use of the phrase “one of those.” When I first began to read him, in high school in the Midwest in the early seventies, I found the phrase an off-putting tic. When a character informed me that he met his wife “at one of those big cotillions at the Waldorf,” I bristled: why assume your reader knows anything of the Waldorf? Cheever seemed to be constantly presuming his readers were East Coast sophisticates—probably with ancestral ties to the Mayflower crew. It took me a while to see that this assumption of a sort of clubby exclusivity was, as so often the case with Cheever, a kind of delicate, straight-faced joke: “one of those large cars that cabinet ministers enjoy in socialist countries”; “one of those flat, cheap cakes with candles that are ordered to celebrate the retirement of the building maintenance assistant”; “one of those Italian restaurants that remind us all of how truly new is our settlement on this continent”; “one of those small, old Italians who always wear their hats tipped forward over their brows as if they were, even in the rain, enduring the glare of an equinoctial sun”; “one of those trains that move slowly across the face of New Jersey, bringing back to the city hundreds of people, like the victims of an immense and strenuous picnic.” One story begins, “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night,’” and another begins, “It was one of those rainy late afternoons when the toy department of Woolworth’s on Fifth Avenue is full of women who appear to have been taken in adultery….”
Cheever liked to pose as a scion of an old New England élite, though he lacked both the family lineage (his father was a failed shoe salesman) and the privileged education (he never attended college) to support the role convincingly. The posturing may have fulfilled fantasies of a wordless, unimpeachable social acceptability, but by and large Cheever regarded with a level head his minor vanities and self-humoring mendacities. You rarely feel in Cheever, as you do in his contemporary and fellow New Yorker fiction stalwart John O’Hara, that a raw hunger for admission into an idealized upper class distorts his ability to treat his well-heeled characters with the calm skepticism they deserve. Cheever liked to play at being a Cabot or a Lowell—a Boston Brahmin—but this charade was delivered with a wink, much as he’s winking when inviting us, by way of a “one of those,” into a privileged world of shared values and experiences.
In all of Cheever’s writing, the most exorbitant use of the phrase must be the opening of “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow,” the title story of his fifth collection: “I would not want to be one of those writers who begin each morning by exclaiming, ‘O Gogol, O Chekhov, O Thackeray and Dickens, what would you have made of a bomb shelter ornamented with four plaster-of-Paris ducks, a birdbath, and three composition gnomes with long beards and red mobcabs?’” One of those writers? In the history of the world, only one writer has ever opened a story quite like that. The opening sentence says, in effect, “I would not want to be one of those writers like John Cheever”—even as his antic artistic zeal, his sparkling-eyed glee in the gambol of his wit, reflects off of every word.
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BIOGRAPHY OF JOHN CHEEVER