Monday, March 23, 2009

Cheever's Basement

I heard or was told by someone not long ago that John Cheever wrote the bulk of his short stories in the boiler room of a midtown office building, where he had contrived to set up a little office for himself, presumably with a desk, lamp, and a bottle of whatever liquor he preferred. Since then it has become almost impossible for me to read his work without being distracted by an image of Cheever in tie and shirtsleeves bent over his dark, gloomy desk, composing in longhand on a legal pad with a big, burly black fellow (straight out of an early Eugene O’Neill play) stoking a furnace somewhere in the stygian darkness surrounding him.

The image is especially distracting given Cheever’s subject matter, those tame Westchester suburbs and cool Cape Cod seascapes, not to speak of the cool characters inhabiting them, people whose concept of Dionysian ecstasy is a game of charades in the living room or Scrabble on the sun deck (augmented, to be sure, by another round of cocktails). At first it’s impossible to reconcile these two images—Cheever’s boiler-room Inferno and the sunny world populated by pale faces and witty cocktail shakers. Furthermore, there is that devilish look on Cheever’s perspiring, concentrated face (which he mops every so often with a monogrammed handkerchief) as he leans over his writing tablet, the look of someone sadistically clairvoyant when it comes to human failings and shortcomings, a man who knows the people he writes about so well that he can predict the exact time and circumstances of each of their sad deaths, not to mention when they will pour themselves their next drink. He’s a frightening entity, this devil-author in his brimstone-stinking cave, scribbling away while the civilized world tears itself to bits above him.

Don’t get me wrong. I love these stories, and love the way Cheever writes. There’s beauty in just about every one of his sentences, which seem less written sometimes than pulled from the sky. E.M. Forester talks about the need for both flat and round characters in fiction, but none of Cheever’s characters are flat. Even the maid who answers the door and waters her boss’s gin is given her fully dimensional due. One gets the feeling that, whatever original impulses may have given rise to his stories, Cheever cannot resist applying the full force of his satanically clairvoyant powers to every single character his pencil touches in its careening subterranean journey.

Indeed, there are moments in “The Sorrows of Gin” where he seems to forget, or at least not to give that much of a damn, whose story he’s telling. Cheever’s omniscience is omnivorous: it consumes anything it touches: children, household servants, even pets—in his hands even the landscape itself, his “verd stone” colored seas and glinting swimming pools, are not exempt from empathy, or its evil twin cousins: complicity and condescension. One feels these people doomed by their affluent trappings, by the sunny porches and brine-pickled summer homes poised to plop into the sea. Oh these poor doomed sunny families and their gin-soaked sorrows. Oh what can we do for them, when the sun has gone down, after the last drink has been poured? And why, when he gets near the end of a story, does Cheever almost always swoon, his sentences mounting into a feverish Whitmanesque rhapsody heralded more often than not by the obtrusive entrance of the anachronistic “Oh”? And when he does swoon, when he opens his mouth to catch a last, dizzy breath before the brain-cells start their gasp, shaping it into that wide, oxygenated “Oh”, we can be pretty sure then that the plot will be the first thing that all that excess oxygen burns, that Cheever, in his swoon, will forget whatever particular story he has set out to tell, to wax generally about “men such as this” and “women such as that” and the “obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless”—true, true, oh so true, and so generic you could end any story on such grace notes.

Some writers abandon their stories, pull the red emergency handle and bail. Some drive a stake through their stories’ hearts. Not Cheever. He gets so moved by his own characters he has something along the lines of a literary orgasm, gives a last resounding howl and dead faints.

That’s not a complaint; I’m not even sure it’s a criticism. I love these stories. And even as they disappoint me their endings thrill.

One more thing. As hard as it is for me to read these stories now without the double vision of Cheever in his underground man’s bunker, it’s just as hard not to see the ghost of Frederick March hounding his suburban husband characters, accosting the maid for sacking his gin, or Colleen Dewhurst as the backgammon playing, brandy-nipping WASP matriarch. Not Cheever’s fault, I’m sure, but the fault of life (and movies) imitating art. But even if some of his characters have become archetypes, and his stories are less devilish for it, still, who won’t forgive anything of an author who has the sea say, “Vale, vale.”

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