Novel Ideas: The Stories of John Cheever

John Cheever in Ossining, New York, 1976

John Cheever has not had a good posthumous career. He is not widely read today nor is he regularly included in school curriculums where reputations live and grow; the setting of Cheever’s stories and what it’s come to represent being under general social and cultural scrutiny — and such scrutiny, anachronistic or otherwise, being generally popular —, Cheever’s stories themselves have often come under attack. ‘Cheeveresque’ has become synonymous with suburbia and middle to upper middle class and dismissed as misogynistic or just another dead white male voice. He has, somewhere along the way, become an author an English major is proud to have graduated without reading (the list may very well include some of Shakespeare’s better-known tragedies, T.S. Eliot, Kipling, etc.).

It should be noted that Fitzgerald — Cheever’s immediate predecessor — and Salinger — his contemporary —, whose primary subject was middle and upper middle class America, continue to be a part of the literary lexicon of our time. Jay Gatsby’s ascension to online bibliophiles’ points of reference and continued presence in ‘The Most Beautiful Quote…’ lists would have surprised even Fitzgerald himself, while Holden Caulfield maintains something of a cult status. Cheever the man, while alive, was not prone to scandal and notoriety as the Fitzgeralds were, or did his stories end up in a Southern School District’s list of banned books.

Cheever’s contemporary reputation, whatever remains of it, is largely shaped by Blake Bailey’s long biography published in 2009 that gives in full and lengthy detail the personal struggles of the troubled author; his daughter’s, Susan Cheever, memoir, Home Before Dark, published just two years after his death in 1984, which revealed her father’s closeted bisexuality and his lifelong struggle with alcoholism; and the posthumously published journals and letters that didn’t really paint a brighter portrait of the author but furthered the image of the man in a mire of emotional crisis and financial troubles.  Perhaps the fact that Cheever isn’t read so much today has more to do with the convergences of these factors that define the author outside of his works: mid-century America, suburbia, his bisexuality, his marital troubles, his strained relationships with his children, alcoholism.

Cover of Vintage International Edition of ‘The Stories of John Cheever’ (2000)

But there’s more to Cheever than the sum of the words written about him, as there are more to Cheever’s stories than the most immediate images of swimming pools and backyard barbecues. In them, bright images — or technicolor, as it was for Frank Perry’s 1968 adaptation of ‘The Swimmer’ — turn sour, sooner or later, and in Cheever’s mastery of the form, the souring makes perfect sense. Central to Cheever’s stories are not particularly 20th-century American notions of glamour of living fast and being peculiarly close to violence, the likes of which can be found in Fitzgerald and Hemingway alike. What lurks behind closed doors of Cheever’s well-to-do suburban houses and apartments, and in the crevices of safety and security of social status and wealth is an element of criminality, of venal sins, small in scale but outsized in moral connotations.

In ‘The Enormous Radio,’ Cheever’s 1947 breakout story in the New Yorker, Jim and Irene Westcott, “the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins,” brings home a radio that transmits sounds from nearby apartments. After a series of bizarre and Kafka-like instances of eavesdropping and paranoia, Jim reveals to Irene the family’s financial crisis and, to obtain a moral high ground, reminds her of how she stole her sister’s inheritance and how she went to get an abortion as if she were “going to Nassau.”

One of Cheever’s more celebrated story, ‘The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” begins Johnny Hake’s description of his house in an upstanding Upstate New York suburbs: “We have a nice house with a garden and a place outside for cooking meat, and on summer nights, sitting there with the kids and looking into the front of Christina’s dress as she bends over to salt the steaks, or just gazing at the lights in heaven, I am as thrilled as I am thrilled by more hardy and dangerous pursuits, and I guess this is what is meant by the pain and sweetness of life.” Johnny Hake then proceeds to tell us how he was fired from his job, lied to his wife, and resorted to stealing his neighbor’s wallet to make ends meet.

The resolution of this particular story says much about Cheever’s stories in general: Hake’s employer calls him and rehires him. That the reestablished order is tenuous and fragile at best is perhaps what makes the tranquil night of a backyard barbecue as thrilling as stealing. Or perhaps that the tranquility, the contentedness, are themselves stolen. If so, from whom or what? Or more importantly, when will they come back to get it?

In a 2012 essay in the New York Review of Books, Allan Gurganus, who studied under Cheever at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, wrote, “If [Cheever’s] fiction still throws off salt spray and blinding daylight, his company amused, intrigued, specialized in dares. He always wanted to have a good time. ‘What’ll we try for fun now, and next, and…?'” Gurganus’s account of Cheever’s company differs with others that speak to his genuine inability to maintain relationships and of his close bond with his dogs as the only close bond the author had in his life. It’s difficult, and perhaps meaningless, to attempt to understand Cheever the man three decades after his death. But as for his characters, they are indeed full of intrigue, desirous of good times, and also full of darkness, weighted by unnamed remnants from past that, even in grand company, they are alone.

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Cold and Amazing: Recent Events to Celebrate Surfing in Toronto

Antonio Lennert says his company Surf the Greats partners with some local exclusive brands for their new surf shop in Leslieville that will open on June 29th. Photo by Sveta Soloveva

Even though many Torontonians think they have to travel far to surf, the local community of wave riders is growing in popularity. More and more people are popping up on the boards in the midst of lakes Ontario, Huron, and Erie.

The adventure and lifestyle company Surf the Greats is going to increase the excitement for the new obsession even more with a couple of big surf events. The screening of Under An Arctic Sky at The Royal (608 College Street) welcomes its renowned adventure photographer Chris Burkard this Thursday. The other — opening of a surf shop/cafe in Leslieville next month — will get surfers everything they need for their soul and body.

Over the past three years, Surf the Greats has been fostering the local surfing community through film screenings, art exhibitions, beach cleanups, surf lessons on the Great Lakes, and surf camps in Nicaragua, Mexico, and Costa Rica. This year the company partnered with Chris Burkard Studio to present the documentary Under An Arctic Sky by Burkard and filmmaker Ben Weiland. The film follows six surfers in the most remote corner of Iceland.

Surf the Greats’s CEO Antonio Lennert said he’s excited to meet Burkard in person for the first time“[Burkard]’s been a big inspiration for us to get outside, explore the nature and take beautiful photographs,” he said.

In order to spread the world about surfing in Toronto, the event will also screen two local short films: On Days Like These You Must Surf by Jake Kovnat and Sweet Water by Andrew Wyton“They were the best short films on Great Lakes surfing we’ve seen so far,” said Lennert. “I thought it would be a great opportunity for local filmmakers to show their work to the big name surf-photographer and filmmaker.”

Kovnat and Wyton were each going to their surf spots over the course of Novella’s interview with them: to Hawaii and to Lake Erie, respectively.

“I feel so amazing! I feel high every time I come in from the surfing on the lake,” said Kovnat. “No matter what else is going on in my life, it feels incredible.”

His black and white documentary tells the story of Larry Cavero, who, together with Lennert, introduced Kovnat to surfing on the Great Lakes. Every time Kovnat shares his surfing experience, the excitement grows in his voice: “I heard about surfing in Toronto around 2013, 2014…And in 2015 I met Antonio and Larry. That was the first time that I went to surf by myself. In the process, Larry actually sold me my first wetsuit and he let me borrow a surfboard just for free. So, I went out on lake Erie and I did horribly, but it was so cool to be out there in the water. And water is really cold. You were always told to be careful and safe in the water, and then you are out there, you feel amazing.”

Kovnat said, as his film was self-funded and all the participants donated their time, the most difficult part for him was the production and getting everyone together:

“When you do a ‘passion project’ like this with basically no money but a really great story, you have to work around the schedule of your crew and schedule of the waves, which is completely unpredictable.” The best part for him was getting shots of Larry and his daughters in Larry’s house and seeing Larry “living his life outside of the water.”

For Wyton, who has shot videos about surfing before, the weather was always one of the most challenging things. “You can never shoot in the wind because your lens will be drowned in the water,” he said. “It’s frustrating just keeping your lens clear all the time.”

Wyton said he enjoyed observing nature and capturing its mystery, which inspired him to do even bigger projects in the future. “I’m happy, but I’m never satisfied,” he said. “I’d like to make another one [film], but I’d like to get more professional surfers.”

The screenings of the three films will be followed by a Q&A with Burkard and a 20-minute presentation about the documentary. The guests will be able to talk to Burkard and purchase his new book. 

Lennert added that they wanted to organize a similar event in 2014 when Weiland and Burkard released their film The Cradle Of Storms. However, it took them a long time to build the network with the Californian producers. “We just opened our company, so we didn’t have enough connections to make it happen,” Lennert said. “We’ve been in touch with him [Burkard] since then. And when we saw he’s releasing his new film, we reached out to him and his producers in California… It took us a while to find the right venue in Toronto that could accommodate 350+ people at an affordable rate. It was a big risk.”

During the event, Surf the Greats will also announce the grand opening of their new shop in Leslieville on June 29th. Lennert said his shop will have everything surfers need: boards, wetsuits, and exclusive clothing brands from Tofino, Montreal, California, and New Jersey. It will be a kind of surfers’ hub with a small cafeteria and space for workshops, yoga classes, and live screenings of surf competitions like the World Surf League (WSL).

“Now we have only one surf shop in Toronto,” Lennert said. “And we don’t actually have the space where the community can hang out outside of waves. So this is going to be a kind of a community’s home.”

VIP-tickets are sold out. Click here to find a last-minute GA ticket. 

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Ones to Watch: Five Artists for our Times

Disorientation is normal; it’s never been easy to cope. But goddamn it if the levels haven’t reached that final boss level these days. These five artists don’t really talk about the Saturday Night Massacre or James Comey, but they are fantastic as reflections of feelings of dislocation.

Anselm Kiefer

Bohemia Lies by the Sea by Anselm Kiefer (1996)

Anselm Kiefer was born in Germany in 1945 and raised in towns near the east bank of the Rhine; he is a child of post-war Europe, its devastation, guilt, poverty, and politics and culture of national identity crisis. To look at the scale and the depth of Kiefer’s landscape is to stare at a an unpromising and faraway horizon. The poppies throughout promise momentary escapes.

Edward Steed

On a lighter note, Edward Steed, the New Yorker cartoonist, goes to Japan in his Japan Baseball Sketchbook and finds himself a little disoriented, a little fascinated. His sometimes careless and sometimes weirdly detailed and often hilarious style carries the confusion and fun of the foreigner in a foreign land well. Perhaps it is the romantic baseball audience inside that sees in Steed’s illustrations a sense of loneliness. It’s a little like, if I were forced to make a comparison, Lost in Translation for baseball lovers. Let’s go Nippon-Ham Fighters!

Winnie t. Frick

From Winnie t. Frick’s website: “Winnie t. Frick is a comic artist & illustrator based in n.y. She is a pseudonym for another woman, or perhaps she is simply a mirror reflecting the spirit animal of blissfully giving up.” Her detailed and intriguing illustrations, portraits, and comics have been featured in Guernica and Capilano Review, among others. Go read otherpeopleproblemsIt’s quiet and reflective. Sad in an enveloping and directionless way. Angst, so to speak, that didn’t go away with the pimples.

Sara Cwynar

Sara Cwynar is a Canadian-born visual artist who seem to be concerned with the lives of objects or visual representations of objects. Her series, Three Hands, Encyclopedia Grids, and Flat Death, offer visions of objects reimagined and visual representations — of celebrities, products, etc — re-presented. Kitsch, or objects that prop up dust in time and never, seemingly, return to nature so much as become foreign interjections in them, or live again ‘re-purposed’ is, considering the amount of plastic produced and dumped and the duration it takes for it to ‘disappear,’ and our relatively recent dependence on it and relative impermanence to it, depressing. Cwynar’s works makes you stop to ruminate.

Sophie Calle

The renowned conceptual artist Sophie Calle recently finished her 25-year-long public art work called Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. The work consists of a marble obelisk with a slot into which visitors can slide in secrets. Calle will return periodically to the famed cemetery to exhume the secrets and to ceremonially cremate them. Symbolically free yourself from your darkest secrets and thoughts.

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Novella Picks Wedding Dos and Don’ts

Art by Michelle Cheung

Natasha Grodzinski, Arts and Culture Contributor 

DO bring a cheque in a card as a gift if you don’t know what else to give. There’s the idea of money being a tacky gift, but the reality most young couples face is one of tight budgeting due to big expenses like moving or buying a house. It also helps you out if you don’t know the couple very well or are pressed for shopping time. Judge the amount accordingly with how close you are to the couple and what your own budget is.

DON’T ignore the RSVP portion of the invitation. Whether you do or d not attend, it’s important to let the couple know so they can plan accordingly. This isn’t like a Facebook party invitation. If you don’t RSVP but show up anyway, there may not actually be a place for you to sit or a plate for dinner.

Drew Brown, Editor-in-Chief 

DO be patient and remember its not your day. All events may not go as smoothly as planned, so don’t add to the stress by complaining that your chicken was dry or that you are not happy with who your sitting with.

DON’T, with all the events that comes with weddings, it can hurt your pockets a little bit especially if you are in the wedding party. That being said, this does not mean you should drink all the alcohol you want to try to make up for the cost lol You don’t want to be the guy or girl who is a hot mess during the wedding.

Meg Summers, Contributor

DO be a good sport and hit the dance floor early. Dead space and awkwardness can be really stressful for a bride and groom if they think their guests aren’t having a good time. Gather some friends, grab a cocktail and bust a move to whatever the band or DJ is playing. You’d be surprised by how quick other people will get up to join you if they don’t have to be the first to make the move!

DON’T be offended if you are not asked to be a part of the wedding party. People have lots of commitments to make and sometimes, your friend’s loser cousin takes precedence over you. Just be happy with all the money you’re saving and be the one at the party who is the bride or groom’s saving grace from the family overload.

Hoon, Managing Editor

DO make a conscious effort to congratulate everybody involved. Don’t be passive-aggressive to the in-laws who’ve been torturing your friend. Sit, smile, drink, and collect dirt on them on the down low. Make friends with the relatives. If the need comes in the future, sabotage from the inside.

DON’T make requests to the DJ or the band or go up to the stereo and pick some mood-killing music. If the music is bothering you and you can’t leave, join me & sit and sulk in a corner away from others. No need to ruin things for everyone. Unless, of course, your intentions are to swerve people away from the disaster that is Taylor Swift lyrics — in this case, ignore above advice. Oh, and also, don’t go over your caviar allotment.

Claire, Contributor

DO pay attention to the dress code. You don’t want to be that person who is underdressed at a wedding. Even if the dress code is labeled as “casual” always keep it classy and wear a dress, skirt, or suit of some kind. Keep in mind the location and weather, and listen to the bride and groom’s instructions and advice. And if you’re a girl, DO NOT even consider wearing white.

DON’T assume you can bring a date. If it doesn’t say “and guest” on the invitation, only you should be attending. If the bride and groom wanted to extend the invitation, they would have.

Meet Nick Kosevich and Celebrate Int. Gin & Tonic Day

The past month has been bit busier than usual for us here at Novella, what with prepping for the JUNOs and various other projects and photoshoots, not to mention the daily refreshing of these very pages. So when we were given the opportunity to let loose a bit for happy hours this past Thursday with Bombay Sapphire East in celebration of International Gin and Tonic Day (today, April 9th), we realized how much we were in need of a nice little break with a botanical note, ready and, oh so shamelessly, eager. And to don us with his gracious and full-of-personality bartender skills and witticisms was Nick Kosevich of Milwaukee’s Bittercube Bitters (don’t let the imposing promotion photo fool you, in person he is just the kind of man you’d want next to you or behind the bar).

Nick walked in with two suitcases that opened to neatly packed set of what seemed to be the ingredients for a cocktail cornucopia; a dozen or so individually labeled tonics, glasses, stirring sticks, science-class reminiscent equipments, and lots and lots of Bombay Sapphire. Some of us began to visibly radiate happiness. He proceed to take the whole team through tasting and understanding various botanical essences that constitute a tonic and later helped us make our very own Novella Tonic — accented notes of grapefruit, ginger, and sassafras.

After we were all nice, relaxed, and giddy, we had a chance to ask him a few questions.


Novella: What would you say are the essential qualities of a good gin?

Nick: I think the combination in a good gin is uniqueness and versatility, which I think are two hard things to do at the same time. Bombay Sapphire East was made to be the perfect gin for a specific drink, yet it’s extremely versatile because of its use of black peppercorn and Thai lemongrass that harkens back to Asian cuisine; it opens up a door to another world where gin works really well. With gin, you are taking botanicals that grow all over the world and putting them together in one bottle, so each bottle tells a different story. But when I think about the home consumer specifically, they might only want one or two bottles of gin. And Bombay Sapphire East is a great choice for a number of reasons; it’s perfect for gin and tonics; it sits well with other classic gin cocktails; and it’s an approachable gin for people who are afraid of that pinewood gin-experience because it’s a very citrus forward and energetic gin.

Novella: And what are such qualities for a good tonic? 

Nick: What’s important in a tonic is that it uses natural flavors and ingredients and natural sugar. If you are using a tonic that uses artificial flavors and has high fructose corn syrup, then it’s just a conventional tonic.

Novella: What’s your favorite gin drink?

Nick: My favorite drink is whatever is in my hand [laughs]. But some other favorite gin drinks are Tom Collins with our cherry bark vanilla bitters; I also love a gin martini and, even better, a Gibson.

Novella: In your professional opinion, how early in the day would you say we can start drinking gin?

Nick: I make this joke all the time that since gin has botanicals in it, it’s technically a salad [laughs]. Therefore, of all of the spirits, we should be able to drink this one earliest. I don’t know if you’ve ever done good day drinking, but it’s a lot of fun.

Novella: Like you mentioned before, some people really dislike gin for its pinewood-like taste. Did you always like gin? Do you remember the first time you tried it? 

Nick: I do. This is real — it’s not really a story for promotions, but I remember not being 21, using my fake IDs… this is a long time ago, so I can tell this story, right? [laughs] You’re at a bar for the first time, you’re 21, and for some reason you think you should say, ‘I’ll have a Sapphire tonic,’ because it sounds mature. And when I’ve said that to people, everyone’s like ‘I did that too!’ You think, ‘What do I order what do I order?… A sapphire tonic.’ [laughs] So for years of my life, that was just the thing that rolled off the tongue. So my first gin experience was in my college years, ordering Sapphire tonics because I thought it was classy. And it is.

The awesome tonic kit experience is currently limited to finding full cocktail bars that use the wide range of tonics, which Toronto will have a dozen of starting next week. But Nick, who will returning to Toronto to participate in the Most Imaginative Bartender Competition as a judge, has bigger plans in the making wherein consumers will be able to receive tonic kits and make their own tonic syrups. For now, Shameful Tiki among others are the bars to go to to try drinks that use great tonics. 

Try Bombay Sapphire East for your next gin and tonic or other drinks, which should be right about this very Sunday afternoon to round out the week. Check out Bittercube Bitters website for more information on Nick’s bitters, recipes, and cocktail ideas. And continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.