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The Stories of John Cheever ()

Pulitzer Prize (Fiction) (1979)

There's a certain smug, elitist assumption in most of the highbrow fiction of the 50s, 60s & 70s that American suburbia is sort of a Potemkin Village--a pretty facade disguising lives of quiet desperation.  This attitude was particularly evident in the pages of The New Yorker, in the stories of folks like John O'Hara, John Updike and John Cheever.  You know the type of story--Dad works in the aerospace industry; Mom's a real estate broker; there are three kids, barbecues every weekend, bridge clubs, bowling leagues, etc., etc., etc., but no one really finds their life fulfilling so they secretly escape into sex, drugs and alcohol, yadda, yadda, yadda...

Perhaps the most famous example of the genre is Cheever's famous story The Swimmer.  On a brilliant summer day Neddy Merrill decides to swim home from cocktails at his neighbors via the swimming pools that virtually everyone has in their backyard.  As he starts out he seems to be virtually a child:

    He was a slender man--he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth--and while he was far
    from young he had slid down his banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite
    on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room.  He might
    have been compared to a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a
    tennis racket or a sail bag the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather.

But as he progresses from pool to pool, he seems to age and even the weather seems to transition from Summer to Fall.  His optimism and satisfaction with life is gradually replaced by intimations that he may be blocking out his actual situation, that his life may in fact be a mess.  Finally, as he arrives at his own house, he finds:

    The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had Lucinda stayed at the
    Westerhazys' for supper? Had the girls joined her there or gone someplace else?... The house was
    locked, and he thought that the stupid cook or the stupid maid must have locked the place up until
    he remembered that it had been some time since they had employed a maid or a cook. He shouted,
    pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw
    that the place was empty.

Regardless of whether Neddy's journey is meant to symbolize his entire life or his earlier optimism is meant to be mere self delusion, at the heart of the story lies the message that things are not as they seem in this happy upper middle class burgh, that lurking just beneath the surface is the looming specter of financial and emotional ruin.

Much of this disdain for Middle America is simply political.  The suburbs were populated by fairly conservative businessmen, white collar workers and skilled employees.  Those little pink houses contained traditional families, churchgoers, Elks Club members, etc.  This was the Silent Majority that Nixon talked about.  The institutional Left meanwhile is fairly urban, more morally permissive and, prior to the advent of the new Market, not very familiar with or concerned about business.  The antipathy between the two, sort of a large scale Town & Gown rivalry, is natural.  It is only exacerbated by the fact that the intelligentsia tend to be fairly miserable and bitterly resented the bucolic lives of those who had fled the city.  Add to these general motives the fact that Cheever was the product of a domineering mother and an unsuccessful father, was alcoholic and a closeted homosexual, and was a social climber humiliated by his own lack of formal education, and it is not hard to see why he would tend to assume the worst about the happy lives of others.  Buried deep behind the false front he put up, it's inevitable that he suspected that others were presenting false selves too.

The best story in this collection captures his own doubt about this supposition.  In The Worm in the Apple, the narrator presents to us The Crutchmans--a typical Cheeveresque family, of whom the narrator says:

    The Crutchmans were so very, very happy and so temperate in all their habits and so pleased with
    everything that came their way that one was bound to suspect a worm in their rosy apple and that
    the extraordinary rosiness of the fruit was only meant to conceal the gravity and depth of the

In the ensuing pages we are treated to a guided tour of their complacent middle class lives, all the while expecting the hammer to fall and the worm to be exposed.  But at the end of the story they still seem to be exactly what they originally appeared to be, a boring happy family:

    With their own dear children gone away the Crutchmans might be expected to suffer the celebrated
    spiritual destitution of their age and their kind--the worm in the apple would at last be laid
    bare--although watching this charming couple as they entertained their friends or read the books
    they enjoyed one might wonder if the worm was not in the eye of the observer who, through
    timidity or moral cowardice, could not embrace the broad range of their natural enthusiasms and
    would not grant that, while Larry played neither Bach nor football very well, his pleasure in both
    was genuine.  You might at least expect to see in them the usual destructiveness of time, but either
    through luck or as a result of their temperate and healthy lives they has lost neither their teeth nor
    their hair.  The touchstone of their euphoria remained potent, and while Larry gave up the fire
    truck he could still be seen at the communion rail, the fifty-yard line, the 8:03, and the Chamber
    Music Club, and through the prudence and shrewdness of Helen's broker they got richer and richer
    and richer and lived happily, happily, happily, happily.

I realize that by the time you get to the fourth successive "happily" there, you're inclined to assume he's being facetious.  If so, he really is asking us to look at these mundane but happy lives and be repelled by them, as if the "normal" or "run of the mill" existence were something horrifying and our guide is Mr. Kurtz (see Orrin's review of Heart of Darkness).  This just strikes me as too monstrously condescending on his part, not to mention extravagantly wrongheaded.  The more charitable reading is that he's expressing genuine doubt about his own inclination to assume there's a worm.  In that sense the story really works to subvert the message of the rest of his oeuvre and much of the fiction and the attitudes of his peers.  For me, this one story makes the collection worthwhile, while also mitigating strongly against any chance of my hacking my way through the other 800 pages of the book.


Grade: (C+)


John Cheever Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: John Cheever
    -FILMOGRAPHY: John Cheever (IMDB)
    -INDEX: John Cheever (The New Yorker)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: Terkel reads from "The Swimmer" and interviews author John Cheever (Studs Terkel, 1970)
-SHORT STORY: The Swimmer (John Cheever, 7/18/1964, The New Yorker)
    -WIKIPEDIA: The Swimmer (short story)
    -ENTRY: THe Swimmer (
    -AUDIO: From the Poetry Center Archive: John Cheever reads "The Swimmer" (92nd Street Y, December 19, 1977)
-RADIO PLAY: The Swimmer (Radio Play Revival)
-STORY OF THE WEEK: The Swimmer, John Cheever (1912–1982), From John Cheever: Collected Stories & Other Writings (Library of America)
    -PODCAST: The Swimmer (Anne Enright, The New Yorker Fiction Podcast)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: THE LATE-SUMMER MELANCHOLY OF ‘THE SWIMMER’: John Cheever's story is the perfect thing to read as August nears its end (Nick Ripatrazone, 8/22//22, Gawker)
    -ESSAY: The Swimmer by John Cheever – into a suburban darkness: This classic tale has echoes of many other great stories, but stands on its own as a portrait of a disintegrating man (WB Gooderham, 31 Aug 2015, The Guardian)
But whereas Gatsby’s wilful self-deception indirectly cost him his life (his body found floating in his pool, no less), the character and fate of Ned Merrill seems closer to that of another tragic Fitzgerald hero: Tender is the Night’s Dick Diver. Both are aging lotharios whose weakness of character and drinking have estranged them from friends and family; both are financially ruined; and both suffer the arguably more tragic fate of being exiled from the kingdom they once ruled.

    -ESSAY: Weekend Short: ‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever (LUTHER RAY ABEL, February 11, 2024, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Personal Best: The Swimmer (Michael Chabon, 9/30/96, Salon)
    -ESSAY: My Favorite Short Story: The Swimmer by John Cheever: Deep Thinking About Great Books Studied 24 Famous Short Stories in March of 2018. This One Was My Favorite (Spencer Baum, Dec 15, 2018, Medium)
    -THESIS: The Archetypal Significance of John Cheever's "The Swimmer" (Mary Reagan,Texas State University )
    -ESSAY: SWIMMING HOME WITH JOHN CHEEVER (Jennifer Makowsky, 24 April 2006, PopMatters)
    -ESSAY: “‘Swimming in Money’ and John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’” (David Ullrich, 24 Aug 2020, AMQ)
    -ESSAY: Damned in a fair life: Cheever's "The Swimmer." (Stanley J. Kozikowski, Summer 1993, Studies in Short Fiction)
    -ESSAY: America Has the Bends: How Cheever Used “The Swimmer” to Critique the American Dream (Kevin Hutcheson, Dec 4, 2014, Medium)
    -ESSAY: Exploration and Colonization in John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” (Interminable Ramblings)
    -ESSAY: Changing: A Short Study on John Cheever’s “Swimmer” (Yanfei Li, Jingdong Zhong*, and Yuting Lv, May 2024, Frontiers in Sustainable Development)
    -ESSAY: Allusions to "The Great Gatsby" in John Cheever's "The Swimmer" (Allen, William Rodney, Summer 1989, Studies in Short Fiction)
    -ESSAY: Coming Home: A Look at John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” (Herbert Plummer, July 26, 2019, Notebook in the Rain)
    -ESSAY: John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” and the Sorrow of the Internet (EQUITIES NEWS TEAM, JUNE 12, 2019)
    -ESSAY: Reading John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” (Charles May, Shelf Media)
    -ESSAY: Leave it to Cheever (Steve Garabino, 11/25/2001, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Monomyth in John Cheever’s Short Fiction “The Swimmer” (Arati K Thakur, April 2015, Labyrinth: An International Refereed Journal of Postmodern Studies)
    -ESSAY: Lisbon and Hackensack in Cheever's 'The Swimmer.' (David J. Piwinski, Spring 1996, Studies in Short Fiction)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Nightmare in Suburbs: English Prof Explains Cheever's "The Swimmer," A Modern-Day Odyssey Analysis (Dr. Whitney Kosters, 11/27/23, YouTube)
    -STUDY GUIDE: The Swimmer (Course Hero)
    -STUDY GUIDE: The Swimmer (NASRULLAH MAMBROL, OCTOBER 5, 2021, Literary Theory and Criticism)
    -STUDY GUIDE: The Swimmer (An Interpretation of "The Swimmer" by John Cheever (REBEKAH NYDAM, SEP 13, 2017, HubPages)
    -STUDY GUIDE: The Swimmer (LitCharts)
    -STUDY GUIDE: The Swimmer (A Summary and Analysis of John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’ (Dr Oliver Tearle, Interesting Literature)
    -STUDY GUIDE: The Swimmer (SparkNotes)
    -STUDY GUIDE: The Swimmer (Cliff Notes)
    -ESSAY: Cheever's Art of the Devantating Phrase (Brad Leithauser, 5/30/2012, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The demons that drove John Cheever: John Cheever, brilliant chronicler of American suburbia led a tortured double life filled with sexual guilt, alcoholism and self-loathing. On the eve of a major new biography, Rachel Cooke travels to his beloved home in upstate New York, and meets his daughter, son and 90-year-old widow (Rachel Cooke, 17 Oct 2009, The Guardian)
The journals contain some of the best sentences Cheever ever wrote, but, my God, they are horrifying. The pain, the loneliness, the secrecy, the shame: Cheever, an imposter in his own life, turned self-loathing into an art form.

    -ESSAY: Imagining One Last Lunch with My Father, John Cheever: Benjamin Cheever Wonders How He'd Explain Donald Trump (Benjamin Cheever, June 22, 2020, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: The Pain, Hidden in Plain Sight, of John Cheever’s Darkest Work: Rick Moody on Bullet Park (Rick Moody, December 18, 2019, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Here’s definitive proof that John Hughes was a fan of John Cheever. (Raf Richardson-Carillo, September 2, 2022, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: One great short story to read today: John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” (Emily Temple, May 15, 2024, LitHub)
    -PODDCAST: Christine Coulson on John Cheever and Dorothy Parker (In Conversation with Catherine Nichols, Lit Century Podcast, November 21, 2023, LitHub)
    -INTERVIEW: Emma Cline on Anaïs Nin’s Erotic Fiction and John Cheever's Journals (Book Marks, 8/11/20)
    -ESSAY: Mad Men is leaving Netflix. Time to read John Cheever. (Raf Richardson-Carillo, June 2, 2020, LitHub)
    -INTERVIEW: The Library of America interviews Blake Bailey about John Cheever (In connection with the publication in March 2009 of John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings and John Cheever: Complete Novels, edited by Blake Bailey, Rich Kelley conducted this exclusive interview for The Library of America e-Newsletter) [PDF]
    -ESSAY: John Cheever's 'Housebreaker,' Welcome as Ever (JONATHAN YARDLEY, July 20, 2004, Washington Post)
    -ARCHIVES: John Cheever (LitHub)
    -ARCHIVES: John Cheever (The Guardian)
    -VIDEO ARCHIVES: “john cheever” (YouTube)
    -REVIEW: of The Swimmer (Monique, Short Story Station)
    -REVIEW: of The Stories of John Cheever (John Leonard, The New York Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Journals of John Cheever (Geoff Dyer, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey (Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Cheever: A Life (Blake Morrison, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW:‘The Swimmers’: A Long Song to Memory: Julie Otsuka’s third novel, the California Book Club selection for September, performs a rescue of what might otherwise be forgotten. (JOHN FREEMAN, SEP 13, 2022, California Book Club)


    -WIKIPEDIA: The Swiimer (1968 film)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: The Swimmer (1968) (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: John Cheever (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Sydney Pollack (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: The Swimmer (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Swimmer: A prophetic modernist fable set in a fading Eden (Michael Atkinson, Library of America)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Swimmer (Mitchell Beaupre, Paste)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Swimmer (Vincent Canby, NY Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Swimmer (Kim Newman, Empire)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Swimmer (Roger Ebert)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Swimmer (Time Out)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Swimmer (Travis Woods, Bright Lights/Dark Room)
    -BALLET REVIEW: Swimmer, SF Ballet : Wading into the current fascination with 1960s culture, "Swimmer" dives and bobs along, neither drowning in excess nor floating as a completely coherent work. (John Sullivan, Culture Vulture)

Book-related and General Links:
    -John Cheever (1912-1982)(kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "john cheever"
    -Julie and Janet's Page on John Cheever
    -ESSAY: John Cheever and Indirection (Rick Moody, Conjunctions)
    -ESSAY: John Cheever: Parody and The Suburban Aesthetic (John Dyer)
    -ESSAY: PERSONAL BEST:   "  T h e   S w i m m e r  "   b y   J o h n   C h e e v e r (MICHAEL CHABON, Salon)
    -ESSAY:  Saul Bellow: On John Cheever, NY Review of Books
    -ESSAY: Position Paper on "Goodbye, My Brother"
    -ESSAY: Addiction in John Cheever's "The Enormous Radio"   (Dr. Clifton Snider, Sample Story Analysis)
    -REMARKS: Brokenness: on form and the short story (Paul Lisicky, Blithe House Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: WRITERS AND ALCOHOL  (Ann Waldron, The Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: ONE TOO MANY FOR THE MUSE (J. Anthony Lukas, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: YADDO  (JEAN NATHAN, NY Times Book Review)
    -LINKS:  John Cheever   (1912-1982) (Bedford/St. Martins, Lit Links)
    -LINKS: American Modernism
    -REVIEW: Robert Towers: Light Touch, NY Review of Books
        The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever
    -REVIEW: Elizabeth Hardwick: The Family Way, NY Review of Books
        The Wapshot Scandal by John Cheever
    -REVIEW: Frederick C. Crews: Domestic Manners, NY Review of Books
        Drive, He Said by Jeremy Larner
        Teeth, Dying And Other Matters by Richard G. Stern
        The Brigadier and the Golf Widow by John Cheever
    -REVIEW: Thomas R. Edwards: Surprise, Surprise, NY Review of Books
        The World of Apples by John Cheever
        People Will Always Be Kind by Wilfrid Sheed
        Points for a Compass Rose by Evan S. Connell, Jr.
    -REVIEW: Robert Towers: Up the River, NY Review of Books
        Falconer by John Cheever
        A Place to Come To by Robert Penn Warren
    -REVIEW: of THE JOURNALS OF JOHN CHEEVER By John Cheever (Mary Gordon, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Journals of John Cheever Edited by Robert Gottlieb (HERBERT MITGANG, NY times)
    -REVIEW: of The Letters of John Cheever Edited by Benjamin Cheever (JOHN GROSS, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF JOHN CHEEVER Edited by Benjamin Cheever (Robert Kiely, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of OH WHAT A PARADISE IT SEEMS By John Cheever (John Leonard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of OH WHAT A PARADISE IT SEEMS By John Cheever (Anatole Broyard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THIRTEEN UNCOLLECTED STORIES BY JOHN CHEEVER Edited by Franklin H. Dennis (Sven Birkerts, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Elizabeth Hardwick: Cheever, or The Ambiguities, NY Review of Books
        Home Before Dark by Susan Cheever
    -REVIEW: of  HOME BEFORE DARK. By Susan Cheever (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY times)
    -REVIEW: of TREETOPS A Family Memoir. By Susan Cheever (Jane Smiley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of JOHN CHEEVER A Biography. By Scott Donaldson (Lorrie Moore, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of John Cheever A Biography By Scott Donaldson  (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: Cheever's Widow Suing to Stop Publication of Story Collection (HERBERT MITGANG, NY times)
    -REVIEW: of  UNCOLLECTING CHEEVER The Family of John Cheever vs. Academy Chicago Publishers (Richard Dooling, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of UNCOLLECTING CHEEVER.   [ The Family of John Cheever vs. Academy Chicago Publishers ] by  ANITA MILLER (Peter Kurth, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Uncollecting Cheever (Dave Reid, Foreword Magazine)

    -LINKS: American Writers and Their Works: The 20th Century