Tuesday, May 7, 2013

May is Short Story Month - John Cheever

May is Short Story Month and today's author is John Cheever. Cheever is often referred to as "the Chekhov of the suburbs," and at first glance most of his work seems rather waspy. While it is true that the majority of his work is set in Manhattan, Westchester and old New England villages, the real action is beneath the surface of these seemingly idyllic settings: The yin and the yang, the light and dark, body and spirit. The face that we show the world in social situations often doesn't resemble the face we look at in our bathroom mirror at 3:00 a.m. Things are rarely as they seem. Alice went down the rabbit hole; Cheever jumped in an upper-middle-class backyard swimming pool.

Cheever was born in Massachusetts in 1912 to a prosperous family that lost everything in the crash of 1929. The house was foreclosed, his mother forced to open a shop to make ends meet and his brother had to abandon Dartmouth for lack of tuition money. Cheever himself was either a) tossed out of his private academy for smoking, or b) had to leave because he really wasn't much of a student; the record is unclear on this detail. He had a short story published in a contest by the Boston Herald and was subsequently accepted to the Yaddo artist's colony in the summer of 1934, where he would return again and again throughout his life.

He sold his first story, "Buffalo," to The New Yorker in 1935 for $45. It would be the first of many.   There are so many wry, sometimes absurd, anecdotes involving Cheever that I can't begin to include all of in this brief bio. Please follow the link at the top of this post and read the entire bio, it's well worth your time. For example, for four years he would dress in his only suit and take the apartment building's elevator to the basement where he would strip to his boxers and write all morning. He hated his first published collection of short stories, The Way Some People Live, so much that whenever he would come across a copy for the rest of his days he would destroy it on sight. Too bad if it belonged to you. And this: his third child Federico was born in Italy and they wanted to name him "Frederick" but, as Cheever wrote "there is of course no K in the alphabet here and I gave up after an hour or two." One more example: By the summer of 1966, Cheever's alcoholism had worsened, partially due to his inability to deal with his bisexuality. So of course he blamed the attendant marital strife on his wife, and made an appointment with a psychiatrist, where he proceeded to complain of his wife's "hostility and needless darkness." The psychiatrist conducts a session with Mary Cheever, and then brought both husband and wife in for a join session during which he told Cheever that Cheever himself was the problem: "a neurotic man, narcissistic, egocentric, friendless, and so deeply involved in [his] own defensive illusions that [he has] invented a manic-depressive wife." This served to terminate the doctor-patient relationship.

The adage that "bad decisions make good stories" applies here. Mr. Cheever is the author of several novels one of which, The Wapshot Chronicle (1958), won the National Book Award. He is one of the foremost short story writers of the twentieth century; The Stories of John Cheever (1979) won a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award and a National Book Award. See? Doesn't get better than this. Here is a complete bibliography. Cheever died of metastasized kidney cancer in 1982, shortly after being awarded the National Medal for Literature at Carnegie Hall.

If you are intrigued, and you should be, I can recommend Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey. Published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2009, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Francis Parkman Prize.

Today's story is "The Swimmer" from The New Yorker (1964). This story was adapted to the screen starring Burt Lancaster in 1966 and Cheever, of course, had a cameo. 

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