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Tricks of the light

Born 100 years ago, John Cheever was a short story virtuoso.

On 6 October 1979, John Cheever was photo­graphed for the New York Times on the porch of his house in Ossining, an exclusive village in Westchester County. He’s sitting at a table piled high with objects: four misshapen apples, an American football, two pitchers of darkish liquid, a pair of glasses, a teetering heap of books and an unfinished drink. He’s dressed in polished shoes and a white shirt, his greying hair parted neatly at the side. He isn’t looking at the camera. Instead, he’s swung away from the viewer’s gaze, bending to pet the golden retriever flopped against his feet.

He’s 67, this trim, preppy man: the married father of three children and the author of some of the finest short stories in the English language. He’s also profoundly unhappy and has been afflicted for much of his life by depression and what he sees as his disgusting desire for sex with men. He’s been sober for four years and, though his alcohol consumption was so prodigious that it almost killed him, he’ll never drink what he liked to call a “scoop” of gin again.

There are two kinds of magic to a Cheever story. There is a superficial magic composed of light and weather, of trout streams, Martinis and beaches along the coast of Maine. And then there is a deeper, more disquieting thrill, which arises from the ways in which these radiant surfaces are undermined. In his best work – and I’m thinking here of “Goodbye, My Brother”, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill”, “The Country Husband” and “The Swimmer” – there is an almost perpetual ambiguity, a movement between irony and sheer enchantment that only F Scott Fitzgerald has ever seriously rivalled.

Although he’s sometimes considered a realistic writer, Cheever is stranger and more subversive than his suburban habitats suggest. Sometimes an unexplained “I” will assume control of the narrative, or an eerie, collusive “we”. Stories blast forward in time or contain false endings, false beginnings, midway swerves and points at which the thread is abruptly severed. He seems to take his greatest pleasure in abandoning responsibility for his characters, only to lean in, split seconds from collision, and whirl them back into motion again.

This virtuosic playfulness extends even to titles. Take “Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My New Novel” (retitled “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear” in its anthologised version). It purports to be a list of injunctions (“1. The pretty girl at the Princeton-Dartmouth Rugby game . . . 3. All parts for Marlon Brando”) but manages the nifty feat of critiquing the modern novel while simultaneously convincing the reader
of Cheever’s astounding capacity for creating fiction out of the ashes of practically anything.

The gulf between appearance and interior was also at work in his life, though here it produced less agreeable effects. Despite the Waspy cosplay, Cheever’s origins were yet another source of shame. He was conceived after a sales banquet in Boston and born in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1912. At some point between these two momentous events, his father invited the local abortionist to dinner, an anecdote his mother took pleasure in repeating.

Frederick Cheever was a failed salesman, an eccentric drunk who once threatened to kill himself by leaping from a roller coaster into the sea. As for Mrs Cheever, she had the bad taste to try to improve the family fortunes by opening a shop. “After this I was to think of her,” John wrote, “not in any domestic or maternal role but as a woman approaching a customer in a store and asking, bellicosely, ‘Is there something I can do for you?’”

At 17, he left school and sold a story about his exploits to the New Republic, inaugurating a career that would eventually encompass five novels, several collections of stories, a Pulitzer Prize and a National Medal for Literature, which was awarded six weeks before his death from cancer in 1982. He spent his early adulthood in Manhattan, passing through the Depression in such grinding poverty that he later worried he’d wrecked his teeth on a diet composed chiefly of milk and raisins. He married a well-bred girl he met in an elevator, went briefly and cheerfully to war and returned home to a life of increasing social comfort and psychic disarray.

The stories came swiftly, for the most part, many of them published in the New Yorker. Novels were a different matter. He struggled for over a decade before producing his first, The Wapshot Chronicle. Structure was the problem. Even Falconer, a magnificent account of an imprisoned drug addict who falls in love with a fellow inmate, has a disjointed, rambling quality – evocative over six pages but a little bewildering at greater length.

This is carping. There are to my mind few writers who’ve better charted the perplexing heterogeneity of life than Cheever; who are at once so witty and so moving. When the posthumous publication of his journals revealed the extent of his suffering – the loneliness, the swinish drinking, the obsession with sex, the painfully concealed bisexuality – many of his former devotees were repelled. Among them was John Updike. Reviewing them, he observed: “To speak personally, this old acquaintance and long-time admirer of Cheever’s had to battle . . . with the impulse to close his eyes.” He wondered if the reality of struggle somehow undermined the exquisite weightlessness of Cheever’s work.

In “The Country Husband” a man is driven almost mad by the frustrations of suburbia. Incapable of connecting with his family, he falls in love with the babysitter. In this story, there’s a characteristic sentence: “The morning seemed thrown like a gleaming bridge of light over his mixed affairs.” This light is everywhere in Cheever, bouncing off swimming pools and collecting in drinks. Whatever miseries are being exposed, there is always an ardent attentiveness to the movement of clouds, to the odour of water, to the richly consoling apparatus of the outside world.

It’s possible to see this as escapism; part and parcel of the denial that fuelled his decades of alcoholism, his long (though not permanent) inability to face up to the reality of his erotic desires. But that would be to underestimate both his courage and his intent. “The Country Husband” ends with Francis Weed sitting on the porch of his big house, watching his neighbours as they go about their evening rituals. The last line encapsulates Cheever’s gift for complexity: for servicing, unlike the dirty realists, an obligation to beauty as well as distress.

The last to come is Jupiter. He prances through the tomato vines, holding in his generous mouth the remains of an evening slipper. Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.

There it is: that swerve up and away, out of the trenches, the animal earth, as if gravity were just a joke and the yaw and pitch of flight was somehow in our repertoire. Be glad, it seems to say, and so we should, for there are over a hundred of these stories – as appetising a prospect as an orchard on the first day of fall.

Olivia Laing is the author of “To the River” (Canongate, £16.99)     

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis