“Who Will Sound the Alarm?”: The Stories of John Cheever

The other night in a fit of sleeplessness I picked up The Stories of John Cheever and read for hours—the pages lit unevenly by the light of a small portable reading light, the book itself under the heaviness of covers, concealed within the darkness of my silent, urban apartment. Eventually, when I was full and weary, I laid the stories down on the nightstand and fell back into a deeper slumber. I dreamt of rows of Dutch Colonials in Shady Hill lit up for dinner with carefully burnt casseroles, an outpouring of gin, barren swimming pools, and the leftover hours and lies between strangers and lovers alike—each one carefully observed and then slowly, with the hand of a gentle arsonist, set afire. I awoke thirsty, to the tune of a distant alarm.

It’s the language, of course—soaring, tight sentences full of phrases to make you weep—but most often it’s the imagery of Cheever that stays with me long after reading a story. Philip Roth proclaimed Cheever an “enchanted realist” and many also deemed him the “Chekov of the suburbs”. There’s certainly a suburban familiarity to the subject matter of Cheever’s stories—a distinct connection not only to that era, but the past itself. A great love for country, even the face of disillusionment, and the proclivity for nomadic migration battling against the need for a collective domestic identity. Who’s to say what came first: suspicion of love and intimacy, or the infidelity that follows the thread pull of any uncertain stitch. Fear of death—of darkness, and what solace might be sought through liquid: water, gin, and the dark sea of swimming pools. These are frequent motifs throughout his work, and yet there is a phantasmagoria of absurdity, coupled with the most beautiful understanding of human existence, that leaves my mind fraught with some of the most arresting depictions of American life:

The strange sounds of an enormous radio that tunes into the private lives and disasters of neighbors. The roar of a lion against the sounds of an Upper Manhattan sidewalk. A burned cake, giving off the sweet air of atomic ash to awaken a wife who prepares for the end of the world. A naked apparition, like Venus, walking through the suburbs combing her golden hair. Mr. and Mrs. Babcock running naked out from the terrace at nighttime. A key that dangles in the gorge of someone’s breasts, providing passageway to the Pastern’s bomb shelter. The secret stories written on the bathroom walls of Grand Central Station like scripture for common eyes to interpret. The murderous wife dressed in raincoat and shower cap watering the lawn as the rain falls down around her. And our dear Neddy Merrill: navel-less, wet and shivering under the passing of seasons, standing at the edge of the road awaiting passageway as he makes his cartographic journey home through swimming pools green with desire, and abandoned like hope. [i]

These are not the remnant images of some forgotten postwar suburban life. They are apparitions of the most basic of human desires and deprivations. Perhaps because of the unsettling nature of his stories, some readers proclaim Cheever to be a harsh narrator who cares little for his for subjects, examining them with white gloves and then releasing them for judgment, or otherwise. He is indeed an observer; but he watches with restrained emotional investment, slowly leaking details like the way light pervades the darkness. Gentle in effort, but shocking in perception—often leaving the most important observations until the very last light.

A favorite example of Cheever’s narrative technique is the third of Three Stories, where a gentleman audaciously tries to garner the attention of the beautiful woman sitting next to him on his flight to Rome. He is unsuccessful in many attempts against the weight of her sighs and the mystery of a book she sets up in between them. It isn’t until the ending of the story that the narrator ardently beckons us, “But look, look.”  At his signal it is revealed that the gentleman so earnestly seeking the attention of this woman is her husband, “and she is his wife, the mother of his children, and the woman he has worshipped passionately for nearly thirty years.”

The narrative structure implies an omniscient chronicler and places an exigent illumination onto a detail of the story that changes the lens through which we view the story. Had we known all the details from the beginning our perception would not have shifted so dramatically at the knowledge that this couple we’ve been intently watching is just another married couple. Our own conclusion of meaning falls onto the story at the insistence of a narrator who has given us the most important detail last. Look, look! He coaxes us, often tongue in cheek, and it’s not uncommon that he might walk right onto the page to make adjustments, set the scene, change the course of the story, or boldly proclaim himself.

The Death of Justina is not one of Cheever’s more famous stories but it is well known for a few distinct passages and as many of his stories do, it has a gut-punching beginning and reverberant ending. The narrator of this story, Moses, sets out to tell us a story that is an “example of chaos”; but not prior to warning the reader against the failure of memory, recollection and perhaps the dangers of narration itself:

“Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and the vision we serve will come to nothing.”

In his story Moses seeks to quit smoking and drinking, to bury his wife’s beloved Aunt Justina—who takes her last breath early in the story—and to maintain his job by writing a commercial script for a tonic called Elixircol. The condensation of American grievances: addiction, death, and advertising.

While grieving Moses dreams; he dreams of being in the supermarket with other nomadic shoppers where boxes and containers are left unlabeled, concealed in brown bags in shapes unfamiliar to mathematics. As he dreams, Moses is omniscient: “I was with them and I was withdrawn.” He observes and notices that his fellow male shoppers are brutish and expressive of deep guilt. After they have finished their selections in the market their choices are then revealed—to their great shame—and they are ushered out of the store where groups are taken away in a conveyance that even the omniscient narrator is unable to see. The dream sequence ends with Moses (or perhaps Cheever himself) pondering: “What could be the meaning of this?” With that, the dream is over. The following afternoon is Justina’s burial, in the rain. Moses ponders the role of the undertaker and their helpers and poses another question: “How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?” 

Cheever’s restrained observance is what makes him so effective at giving voice and imagery to despair. He does not infer meaning, but only reflects the story allowing the heavy capacity of its contents to slowly unravel upon the reader. If anything, he is a narrator that asks questions of his audience. Throughout the unraveling, there is a sense of crisis that permeates into each of his stories. Whether actual or existential, a threat exists to the known order of things; but what is to be done—what can be done, if anything? 

Perhaps Cheever’s great ability is to to greet the absurd and the meaningful in the same breath, and then release them from his grasp without giving greater weight to either. It’s often not reality itself but the imagined—the dream, the fantasy, the ghost—through which we come to outline the underbelly of meaning in these stories. The omniscient narrator knows all, but tempts us only with the details that illuminate the more harrowing human pitfalls: the things that we invent to survive, and the dark seeds we bear under the armor of those inventions to face of the ineffable nature of life, and of death. After all, how can we come to understand love if we do not mean to understand it’s most chaotic adversaries; and indeed who will sound the alarm?

If you cannot bear to read the whole collection, start here

Goodbye, My Brother; The Country Husband, The Seaside Houses, The Ocean and The Swimmer. But seriously, read all of them.

The Maddest of Men

In my insistence to spend further time with Cheever and remain with these stories, it became very clear to me that his influence is prolific throughout modern fiction and pop culture, especially found in those retro reexaminations of the American Dream. After all, no one does suburban discontent and general ennui quite like Cheever.

So it’s no coincidence that Cheever's home of many years, Ossining, NY, is also the town where Mad Men creator, Matthew Weiner, decided to set the eggshell home of Don and Betty Draper. You can find the shapes and stories of Mad Men in many of Cheever’s stories, with special attention to: The Five-Forty-Eight, The Bus to St. James’s and The Season of Divorce.

There are a few images that stand out to me: the empty elevators in The Bus to St. James’s that often appear to Don as a trope for fear and death, and it’s certainly no coincidence that when Don tries to get sober physically and mentally in The Summer Man [ii], he turns to the seas of the swimming pool. A watery motif that shows up many times in Cheever's stories; a method of exercise and escape that the writer frequently turned to himself.

Don Draper as The Swimmer, AMC's Mad Men

Don Draper as The Swimmer, AMC's Mad Men

Another great scene appears in the first season of Mad Men, during the episode Shoot [iii]. At precisely 1:00pm after completing all her household chores Betty goes outside in her pink nightgown with a shotgun, never releases the burning cigarette hanging from her pink lips, and begins shooting at the neighbors pigeons. Revisiting this episode, I imagined it as told by the voice of Cheever. It feels so directly inspired by him and it could easily be slipped into the pages of the The Ocean without disruption. As we near the second half of the final season of Mad Men [iv] perhaps the only thing I can hope for is an ending to the series that’s as desperate and absurdly human as the ending to any great Cheever story [v].

Footnotes, naturally

[i] In case you must read them right away this imagery is attributed to the following stories: The Enormous Radio, The Bus to St. James’s, The Wrysons, The Country Husband, The Brigadier and the Golf Window; Mene, Mene Tekel, Upharsin; The Ocean; and The Swimmer

[ii] A beautiful episode (Season 4, Episode 8) that even sounds like the title of a Cheever story: The Summer Man.

[iii] Season 1, Episode 9

[iv] I know it’s not until next year, please don’t remind me.

[v] See: The Country Husband, ending. See: John Cheever, any ending really.