Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Reading John Cheever

I’ve recently been trying to buy a house in Palm Springs, so I’ve been on the road what seems most of the time between San Francisco and PS. It is a nine-hour drive along some of the most boring farmland in Central California. The good news is that Herman and I have found the perfect house for us. We’ve put in an offer and it has been accepted. Now all we have to do is sell our home in Northern California, which has been on the market for three weeks. (No takers yet)

I’ve not been getting a lot of writing done on those long drives. This last trip I took along a collection of John Cheever short stories. I confess I knew zilch about Cheever before I began to read his elegant prose. But after the first story, I fell in love with this writer. He writes rather dark, poignant stories about upper-class families, who always seem to fall from grace. His copyrights range from 1946 to 1972. I’ve read six of his stories so far—loving each one—and there is not a happy ending in sight. He deals with real human dramas, that leave the reader hanging a bit, because that is the way life is.

One of his stories, The Swimmer, was made into a movie some decades ago and stared Burt Lancaster. I had a bit of a crush on Bert so that movie has always haunted me, and reading it today has rekindled that feeling. It’s a brilliant story of a man who uncovers his past by swimming in all his former neighbors swimming pools on his way to what he thinks is his home.

I’ve always loved short stories, but in the hands of a master like Cheever, I am reduced to worship. The short story, to me, is the hardest medium to write. One has to totally capture a turning point in a characters life, with little backstory and the mere hint of what the future holds. To do it well takes brilliance.

It’s sad and also funny for me. When I read authors I admire, like Alex Jeffers and Victor Banis, I realize how far I still need to travel down this literary path before I’ll consider myself an accomplished writer. But when I read writers like Cheever and Steinbeck and Capote and so many others, I begin to think that I don’t have enough time left in my life to travel that far.

But as Homer points out in The Odyssey, it is not the destination but the journey. So I trod on.


Eric Arvin said...

Bullet Park was my first introduction to Cheever back in high school. Loved it. He was very influential on me.

Neil Plakcy said...

I loved reading the Collected Stories, but my favorite has to be the novel Falconer. So impressive!

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

I have his massive Collected Stories. Many years ago in the 70s, it was up for many awards.