John Cheever died a few years before I was born. Prior to his death, he was extremely well-regarded, particularly as a short story writer. His collected stories volume was a bestseller, as was his novel Falconer. But since his death, Cheever has basically disappeared from the literary map. According to this 2009 New York Times article, this is because 1) he was deemed a “New York” writer whose work wasn’t accessible outside of the tri-state and was too similar to Updike and Yates, and 2) his personal life became gossip fodder following his death (Cheever was an alcoholic who struggled with his attraction to men and entered into an extremely unhappy marriage with a woman instead).
This is really unfortunate, because Cheever wrote luminous, engaging short stories. In The World of Apples, the vast majority of the stories involve 1) long-suffering men in/from the suburbs of New York or the Northeast, 2) harping wives, and/or 3) escaping to somewhere physically (Europe, Russia) or mentally (a made-up lover in “The Chimera”). #1 and #2 often lead to #3.
This combination could be trite and boring, especially for someone (like me) who is not a man stuck in ’50s suburban hell, but to Cheever’s credit, his stories transcend their very specific time and place. Cheever writes about people who are stuck and are trying to get unstuck. They are stuck for many reasons, but mostly family and societal norms. Often times, their attempts fail. In fact, several of the stories in this collection include at least one person’s death.
But for Cheever, it’s the people and their attempts that are what matter – the well digger who flees an obsessed housewife only to get into international trouble in “Artemis, The Honest Well Digger”; the husband who tries to make sense of his wife’s nonsensical anger in “The Geometry of Love”; everyone in the Cabot family but the steely mother in “The Jewels of the Cabots,” the best story in the collection. Cheever’s characters are realists who don’t believe in romantic illusion, unless they absolutely need it to get by. In “The Jewels of the Cabots,” the narrator describes hearing an American woman violently berating her lover in a courtyard in Rome. In the midst of her screaming, beautiful Roman bells begin to ring. The narrator notes the ringing, but gets right back to the irate, profane woman:
I smile at [the sound of the bells] although it has no bearing on my life, my faith, my true harmony, nothing like the revelations in the voice across the court. Why would I sooner describe church bells and flocks of swallows?
After a few stories, the reader realizes that no one in this collection is getting a happy ending, but it doesn’t much matter. In their own misguided, frustrated ways, they are trying, as Cheever himself did, to be what others what them to be, and maybe find their own peace of mind in the process. This humanity is what makes Cheever so great.