Despite the early acceptance of John Cheever (1912–82) as a writer of short stories for prestigious magazines (the New Republic, the New Yorker), he struggled for decades to support a growing family and earn critical respect (both of these goals were realized, in spades, in his later years). Conversely, the roles Cheever played adeptly—those of a conventional, albeit eccentric suburbanite and a doting paterfamilias—were forcibly shed as he slipped further into lifelong alcoholism and a troubled, if finally liberating confrontation with his deeply conflicted sexuality.
What has always been most attractive about Cheever’s springy, eternally hopeful, extroverted fiction is its beguiling sense of open-ended possibility: the “territory ahead” or “world elsewhere” that beckon implicitly in American narratives, from Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and Twain’s Mississippi River adventuring, to Saul Bellow’s chronicles of newly made Americans seizing their futures from the flotsam and jetsam of a truly patchwork country and culture.
As Cheever moved into the ampler realms of the novel, his short stories’ trademark focus on moments of epiphany or recognition—in which the urban and quotidian become perturbed and energized by their collision with the fabulous and mythical—expanded into generously imagined narratives—of families transformed by the compromises of aging and changing (in the delightful paired novels The Wapshot Chronicle and The Wapshot Scandal) and of an even more radical transformation in Falconer, a masterly fable of crime and punishment, imprisonment and ascension.
Despite these climactic achievements, it is Cheever as storyteller that most readers prize above his other incarnations. The Library of America’s irresistible collection includes the complete contents of the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1978 Stories, plus handfuls of uncollected stories and others published in Cheever’s essentially disowned 1941 debut collection The Way Some People Live. All 75 of these are incontestably worth reading, and many have taken up permanent residence in their readers’ memories.
Classic portrayals of suburban angst range from essentially conventional cautionary tales (“The Sorrows of Gin,” “The Five-Forty-Eight”), redeemed by their imaginative intensity, to stronger, darker visions—e.g., of a radio in an apartment building that broadcasts details of its occupants’ lives (“The Enormous Radio”); a financially strapped Everyman who finds himself robbing his affluent neighbors’ homes (“The Housebreaker of Shady Hill”); and the perilously heightened imagination that afflicts the chance survivor of an airplane crash (“The Country Husband”).
But there’s more to Cheever—in the Proustian digressiveness of “The Jewels of the Cabots”; the episodic (pre-Wapshot) comedy of “The Day the Pig Fell into the Well”; and, in the best story he ever wrote, a heartbreakingly candid revelation (“Goodbye, My Brother”) of a loving relationship finally understood as both blessing and curse. The mysteriousness of human love and frailty and confusion has seldom been confessed and celebrated with such passionate candor. Attention must be paid, and glasses should be raised in tribute and gratitude to it.