John Cheever helped to define suburban disillusionment through his short stories. He stripped the suburbs of the 1950s and ‘60s in such a terrifying and true manor that even today Mad Men continues to make allusions to his work and takes clear influence from his portrait of the time.
But if you’ve watched Mad Men and haven’t read Cheever, or if you just want to enjoy his work, here are five free reads to celebrate his 102th birthday:
1. His First Published Short Story: “Expelled”
Cheever had an off-and-on relationship with his prep school, Thayer Academy, which he transferred out of and was honorably invited back to after winning a writing contest for the Boston Herald. Yet not long after returning, he still made failing grades and was expelled.
His first published short story is — you guessed it — a fictionalized account of his own expulsion, which was printed in The New Republic in 1930. “Expelled” is gorgeously fragmented and full of that keen skill of observation — almost as if Cheever were outside of himself — which would later define him as a writer. Expect a bit more angst and much less drinking.
2. His First Story in The New Yorker: “Brooklyn Rooming House”
Cheever built his career as a short story writer publishing his work in The New Yorker. He published over 100 works of fiction in the magazine between 1935 and 1981, just before his death in 1982. His first published short story in The New Yorker reveals a young Cheever, one before the suburbs. Unlike “Expelled”, “Brooklyn Rooming House” practically revolves around boozing and a landlord who won’t tolerate “drunkards.”
3. The Story He’s Known for: “The Swimmer”
“The Swimmer” is Cheever’s most commonly anthologized story. Believe it or not, he began the piece with the intention to turn it into a novel, writing roughly 150 pages of material before trimming it into the story readers know today. It begins on a mid-summer day, following Neddy Merrill on his whimsical pursuit to swim across all of the pools in his county on his way home. The story takes a dark turn as a storm barrels through and the chill of autumn comes on, revealing a darker side of Neddy’s suburban community that he had been overlooking for god knows how long.
Interviews can offer a glimpse at the personal side of a writer and his or her work. Lucky enough for bibliophiles, The Paris Review keeps many of their astounding interviews online for free. In Cheever’s, he discusses recovering from the “psychological shock” of book releases, his admiration for Nabokov’s ability to hoodwink readers and what it was like to write for The New Yorker. Each answer is peppered with pieces of Cheever-esque wisdom like, “Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction.”
5. His Haunting View of Suburbia: “The Country Husband”
This story begins with a plane crash — one the protagonist, Francis Weed, survives by some miracle. When Francis arrives safely at home, the horrific accident is hardly acknowledged by his family, who are all too wrapped up in themselves to sympathize with what has happened. It’s terrifying.
Francis spends most of the story dreaming of a life larger than the shallow and manicured town of Shady Hill, of someone more tender than his wife, Julia, who picks fights and cries in front of their children. If you think the ending of this story is happy, you might want to think twice. The phrase “domestic bliss” never sounded so eerie.
We hope these broad strokes over Cheever’s early writing career inspire you to pick up one of his collections — Collected Stories, his greatest hits combo, at the very least.
But what do you think of Cheever’s work? We love it even if it makes us feel disillusioned, lonely and scared of white picket fences. Does the same hold true for you? Let us know in the comments below.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post. As a former cheesemonger, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese. Follow her on Twitter: @moorefreddie
About the Book:
Hypnotizing us with the deceptively simple rhythm of the ordinary, We Were Flying to Chicago offers a moment of change: the view over the cliff, the breath before a decision, a sidelong glance of impending news. Award-winning writer Kevin Clouther skillfully slows time to note the visceral, emotional impact of an everyday moment. A man drives to the wrong mountain, a hubcap cleaner moonlights as a karaoke star and a woman trusts a stranger on the bus. Each of the 10 stories in We Were Flying to Chicago is contemporary without being ironic or glib, offering a glimpse of stark vulnerability, faith and shared experience.
About the Author:
Kevin Clouther was born in Boston and grew up on Cape Cod and in South Florida. He holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he completed his thesis under Marilynne Robinson and won the Richard Yates Fiction Award for best short story. He has worked at The Iowa Review, Meridian and The Virginia Literary Review, where he served as fiction editor. He teaches creative writing at Stony Brook University, where he coordinates the Program in Writing Reading Series, and at John Hopkins. He has previously taught at Bridgewater College in Virginia, the University of Michigan Dearborn and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Floral Park, New York with his wife and two children.
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