Worlds Apart

by Jim Farrar (1986)

The following is from the preface of The Stories Of John Cheever:

These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like "the Cleveland Chicken," sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are.

All right. We'll get back to the preface later.

The first story in this collection is a piece called Goodbye, My Brother, which Cheever apparently wrote shortly after the Second World War. I read it for the first time about five or six years ago and, though I'd forgotten the details, I remembered how I'd been struck by Cheever's language and how he'd created a world that I could relate to, even though it was so different from mine.

I reread Goodbye, My Brother a couple of days ago and I'm happy to say that it still has the same effect on me.

At first glance, the plot seems almost trite. But Cheever, like most good writers, can work wonders with simplicity.

In this instance, he recounts a summer reunion of the Pommery family at their vacation house on Laud's Head, off the coast of Massachusetts. There are five of them, four siblings and their mother, who has aged gracefully and is, in many ways, the central figure of the family, though she never seems matriarchal or dictatorial. She is a strong and aggressive woman, but then so are her children.

There is balance in this family, though where the fulcrum is it's hard to say, unless it comes from the illusion, in the words of the narrator, that "when we are together, the Pommeroys are unique."

The one blemish on this idyllic surface is the presence of Lawrence, the youngest brother, a cynical lawyer from Cleveland who has distanced himself, emotionally and geographically, from the rest of the family, a man whom Cheever describes as being the type whose eye would seek out in a crowd "the cheek with acne, the infirm hand."

Flannery O'Connor says that a good story always involves the "mystery of personality." How true. And this is what we get here.

It is, in fact, all we get. But then again, it's all we need. I would carry this notion one step further and say that a good story need only reflect this "mystery of personality" to the point that the world that an author creates seems self-contained and true only to itself; that the story need only be honest and its events a natural occurrence within its own framework.

What I like about this story is that Cheever manages to create a feeling of conflict without ever confronting it. There is no culmination of events, just a logical progression of time. No hostile words are exchanged, just subtle barbs, and there is no scene in which any of his characters go for the throat, with words or anything else, though we know, as readers, that something has happened by the end of the story, that something has indeed changed and that the family will never be the same again because of it.

But all of this is addressed obliquely, never directly. The closest Cheever ever comes is a passage during which the narrator slaps his brother on the back of the head with a piece of seaweed, the result of the frustration caused by Lawrence's own failure and inability to enjoy himself.

But even here the passion is understated, which only serves to give it that much more life, to increase the tension that's been so slowly developed. The beauty of Cheever's writing is that he makes us feel this development, but at a subconscious level.

Though Lawrence's injury is not serious (it is, after all, only a root, a piece of seaweed, that he's been assaulted with), we realize that his wound is nonetheless terminal, but in a more symbolic way. Lawrence merely stands in the doorway, his head bleeding, and tells the rest of the family that "my brother did this to me." He leaves the next day and, though Cheever never says as such, we know that the Pommeroys have lost one of their own to an inevitability that is every bit as final as death, and that Lawrence is a tragic victim of his own pessimism.

The reason I've included a passage from the preface here is because I think that Cheever himself has hit upon the quality of his writing that most appeals to me. Though I've never read any of his novels, there's something about his short stories that has always reminded me of Scott Fitzgerald's.

I'm not particularly sure what that something is, but I have my suspicions. There's a feeling of jaded opulence to Cheever's fiction, a kind of a "Gatsby goes to the suburbs" quality. It's certainly nostalgic; and Cheever's is a longing and somewhat critical, though never unaffectionate, portrayal of a world that I'll never know, by virtue of my age and, also, because I was brought up in the West. There's a very Eastern flavor to Cheever's work, and it's a credit to him that he is able to make such a different world intelligible and enjoyable to an outsider such as myself.

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