My Book World
After perusing Cheever’s letters, I felt inspired to read his sixty-one collected stories (almost 700 pages)—a compendium I had previously spurned because I had only read his early stories. Mistake. And I withdraw what I said in print in the past about Cheever’s short stories being of less value than his novels. However, I believe his collection does present an interesting profile. His early ones, indeed, are less developed, less interesting, at least, to me. The middle ones and most of the later ones remain his meatiest stories. Cheever almost exclusively writes about life in New York City and its suburbs (Bullet Park, Shady Oaks). Most of his long list of characters are adorned with Anglo-Saxon (or Anglo-Saxon sounding) names or made-up names of that ilk for symbolic purposes; if he uses a foreign name, he has something in mind (Boulanger, the French housemaid). Among the A-S names: Pommeroy, Westcott, Hartley, Tennyson, Hollis, ad nauseam—all giving voice to his own cultural dna or the heritage of New England. Some of the suburban stories become a bit pat. Most involve a man and a wife, who, to some degree, love one another, but one or the other is unhappy with this happy marriage—three to five loveable but often invisible children. All involve riding trains to the city, driving station wagons over narrow asphalt roads to summer vacations in Maine or the mountains. People who smoke and drink too much and really don’t care.
But! These must have been the very stories that the New Yorker wished to publish because Cheever certainly gave them what they wanted. For a time Cheever and family live in Rome, Italy, and it is that experience that gives brilliance to some of his most interesting and creative stories. In his letters, Cheever reveals that their family brings back to the U.S. a young Italian woman who works for the Cheevers. In “Clementina,” he brings this relationship to life by way of fiction, and the result is stunning. Cheever’s suburban world is now seen through the eyes of a poor Italian domestic who both loves and detests what she witnesses in suburbia. Cheever really seems to occupy her point of view. Likewise, “Boy in Rome,” is a lovely wandering story with a wonderful poetic refrain about “being loved enough.” Cheever sees Rome with eyes that have become so jaundiced by suburban America that the story is somehow crisper than some of his domestic narratives. He’s forced to observe and judge more keenly because of the environment’s apparent strangeness. A lesson to all writers: get out of your own backyard if you can, and see what happens to your fiction. Anyone writing short stories could benefit from reading these gems, mostly because it may remove you from your current world, and he shows you how to do it: be a keen observer no matter the setting; write what you know; and have fun skewering human nature if you can.
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