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.
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.