Post Road Magazine #11


Jessica Shattuck

I have to admit that when I first read Cheever, I thought he was kind of hokey. I think I had read "The Enormous Radio," or another of his more structured, conceit driven stories. I was still in high school, and his way of rendering epiphany seemed somehow na•ve to me-simplistic, and overly optimistic.

But then I grew up. Re-reading Cheever halfway through writing my first novel I was blown away by not only his writing (who can top the richness and beauty of his language?), but by the very thing about his stories that had first turned me off. As an adult I could see suddenly that the small moments of wonder and innocent, almost childish joy he captures were not, in fact, the product of a naively optimistic imagination, but the product of a conscious-and courageous-choice he had made as a writer.

In her 1964 review of The Wapshot Chronicle, Cynthia Ozick accused John Cheever of being a "minor writer" who "records not societies, or even allegories of societies, but vapid dreams and pageants of desire." In this, she added her voice to the chorus of critics who have, over the years, written Cheever off as an author of "middlebrow" fiction, too forgiving of the provincial, upper class characters he writes about and too given to creating moments of unwarranted redemption to offer any insight into the harsh truths of life. Seemingly in direct response to such criticism, Cheever himself wrote at the end of his story "The Jewels of the Cabots": "Children drown, beautiful women are mangled in automobile accidents, cruise ships founder, and men die lingering deaths in mines and submarines, but you will find none of this in my accounts. In the last chapter the ship comes home to port, the children are saved, the miners will be rescued. Is this an infirmity of the genteel or a conviction that there are certain discernible moral truths?"

It is a curious question when taken at face value. When we think of moral truths we are apt to think of distinct mandates and rules we can use to guide our actions toward goodness and away from evil-the Ten Commandments, for example. But Cheever's characters are certainly not all "good" people, rewarded for their purity, bravery, generosity, or what have you. I think that the "moral truth" he refers to is, instead, the choice to recognize the grace, beauty, and wonder of life when it would be easier to focus on its defeats and frustrations is courageous and worthwhile.

It's a choice that so many of his characters make. Whether through fantasy (like Neddy Merrill in "The Swimmer") or willful consideration (like the narrator of "Goodbye, My Brother"-my personal favorite) the

deeply flawed and often unhappy people Cheever writes about often transcend the thick smog of their troubles and, for at least a few moments, breathe of a sweeter, softer more promising air. It's out there for all of us, Cheever seems to suggest, "the harsh surface beauty of life. . .the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless" (from "Goodbye, My Brother"), the sheer wonder of being alive. It's harder to convince people of this than to convince them that the world is a cruel, sad, and often lonely place (which any reader already knows). But for this reader anyway, Cheever manages to, time and again. •

Daphne Kalotay is the author of the collection Calamity and Other Stories. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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