In the late 1970’s, several lifetimes ago, I was an unemployed screenwriter. No, make that: unemployed writer. Before my first attempts at screenwriting I had begun a novel I couldn’t figure out how to finish. I knew I needed to write. I also knew, among other things, it would be a good idea to figure out some way to pay the rent. Somehow, one winter – and winter in Southern California were never cold – I found myself traveling to the East Coast, to visit friends who had escaped from the overcrowded polluted bustle of the California urban rat race for an idyllic existence in a small Vermont town. It was freezing cold, snow blanketed the ground, the streets, the houses, the trees, everything. It was a different world. The transplanted friends were schoolteachers and had an appreciation for literature and words, so one night we found ourselves heading to the small local Library, to hear a local author read from one of his works. “Local” turned out to be a misnomer, as the author in question actually lived in New York state, in the town of Ossining, a few hours to the south.
The author and his golden retriever, Maisie, on the porch of his Ossining, New York, house in 1979
The library was relatively small. Hell, it was tiny. A few dozen people showed up. Most seemed well-groomed, thoughtful, the kind of people who never miss their PBS Masterpiece Theater on Sunday nights. Very few under 40, only a handful, yours truly included, under 30. Then the author arrived. I remembered a man who seemed old, older than the the lines that had etched their way into his forehead and around his eyes. Not a tall man. He sat in front of us at a table with a book, a water glass, a pitcher of water and an ashtray. The ashtray seemed the most important accessory: it began to fill up with the butts of the unfiltered cigarettes he smoked, one after the other. But then he stopped smoking and began to read from a book of stories he had written.
The one he had chosen was about a bored man who lives in the suburbs and who decides, one day, on a whim, to relieve his crushing boredom by walking through all the back yards in his neighborhood….and swimming through the swimming pools that are in each and every one of them. As he does so he begins to learn some unpleasant truths about himself, his past and what dark truths and secrets his idyllic images of suburban life…may conceal.
The author’s voice was gravelly, he stopped to cough occasionally, at one point he read and smoked. But none of that made any difference any longer, to me, nothing mattered but the words, the way he was reading them, the story which was pulling me in. An extraordinary tale told with extraordinary language and read in what I can only describe as an extraordinary manner by the man who had written it.
His name, as I discovered at the end of the evening, was John Cheever.
In my consummate ignorance at the time, I had heard of John Cheever, seen his name in Book Reviews and occasionally in the New Yorker, I had seen his novels in bookstores but….I had never read one word he had written.
John fucking Cheever. An author who has been called “the Chekhov of the suburbs”. A writer whose public acclaim – best seller-dom and critical praise including a Pulitzer Prize and the National Medal for Literature – were equalled only by his internal demons, his alcoholism, his suicidal depression, his complex bisexual relationships in an era of overtly anti-gay prejudices. It was obvious to me that the man I saw reading that night had been through the wringer – he didn’t just write about the darkness and dualities of human nature, he lived them. Breathed them. And smoked them.
People, myself included, talk about amazing concerts or performances they have been to. A month ago, visiting friends in Southern California, I saw jazz pianist extraordinaire Keith Jarrett perform flights of brilliant improvisation that are hard to believe unless one experiences them in person. Light years beyond listening to the same song on your iPod, your stereo, your laptop or your smartphone. Listening to John Cheever read that night was the same. An amazing experience that, as it went on, part of your brain realizes how incredible it is, what is happening, to hear a master storyteller bringing each word to slow inexorable life, complete with coughing fits, cigarette breaks, and all. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Now, years later, I can shut my eyes and find myself in the old wood-panelled library again, inhaling the second-hand smoke of Cheever’s unfiltered cigarettes (Chesterfields? Camels? Lucky Strikes? I can’t fucking remember). And powerless to resist the grip of the words, or where they were (are) taking me.
Cheever understands the duality of things. Outer decorum, inner corruption. Light and dark. Flesh and spirit. Deep deep pain. And joy, sweetness…ecstasy.
He’s worth reading. And then reading again. Revisiting. I’m currently re-reading a collection of stories he published in 1978. Four years before his death, from cancer, in 1982. One of those stories is the one he read that night, “The Swimmer”. Subsequently filmed in 1968, with Burt Lancaster in the title role. But right now the part that gets me is not the stories, but the Preface he wrote to introduce the book. As we all know, a preface is an introduction to a book or a literary work, written by the book’s author. Some prefaces are anecdoctal. Some strive for profundity. Some are just plain fucking boring. But John Cheever’s Preface is so cool that it’s worth reading. And rereading.
And then thinking about.
Here it is –
It would please me if the order in which these stories are published had been reversed and if I appeared first as an elderly man and not as a young one who was truly shocked to discover that genuinely decorous men and women admitted into their affairs erotic bitterness and even greed. The parturition of a writer, I think, unlike that of a painter, does not display any interesting alliances to his masters. In the growth of a writer one finds nothing like the early Jackson Pollock copies of the Sistine Chapel paintings with their interesting cross-references to Thomas Hart Benton. A writer can be seen clumsily learning to walk, to tie his necktie, to make love, and to eat his peas off a fork. He appears much alone and determined to instruct himself. Naïve, provincial in my case, sometimes drunk, sometimes obtuse, almost always clumsy, even a selected display of one’s early work will be a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.
These stories date from my Honorable Discharge from the Army at the end of World War II. Their order is, to the best of my memory, chronological and the most embarrassingly immature pieces have been dropped. These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner of the stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like “the Cleveland Chicken,” sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are. The constants that I look for in this sometimes dated paraphernalia are a love of light and a determination to trace some moral chain of being. Calvin played no part at all in my religious education, but his presence seemed to abide in the barns of my childhood and to have left me with some undue bitterness.
Many of these stories first appeared in The New Yorker, where Harold Ross, Gus Lobrano, and William Maxwell gave me the inestimable gifts of a large, discerning, and responsive group of readers and enough money to feed the family and buy a new suit every other year. “This is a family magazine, God damn it,” Ross used to yell at any hint at the stirring of erotic drives. He was not himself a decorous man and when he discovered that I would jump whenever he used the word “fuck” across the lunch table he would frequently say “fuck” and watch me jump. His lack of decorum was, in fact, pronounced, and if, for example, he anticipated a dull poker companion, he would go into the bathroom and return with his ears stuffed with toilet paper. This sort of behavior would never, of course, appear in the magazine. But he taught one, I like to think, that decorum is a mode of speech, as profound and connotative as any other, differing not in content but in syntax and imagery. Since the men he encouraged ranged as widely as Irwin Shaw and Vladimir Nabokov, he seems to have done more good than anything else.
Any precise documentation of one’s immaturity is embarrassing, and this I find from time to time in the stories, but this embarrassment is redeemed for me by the memories the stories hold for me of the women and men I have loved and the rooms and corridors and beaches where the stories were written. My favorite stories are those that were written in less than a week and that were often composed aloud. I remember exclaiming: “My name is Johnny Hake!” This was in the hallway of a house in Nantucket that we had been able to rent cheaply because of the delayed probating of a will. Coming out of the maid’s room in another rented house I shouted to my wife: “This is a night when kings in golden mail ride their elephants over the mountains!” The forbearance of my family has been inestimable. It was under the canopy of a Fifty-ninth Street apartment house that I wrote, aloud, the closing of “Good-bye, My Brother.” “Oh, what can you do with a man like that?” I asked, and closed by saying, “I watched the naked women walk out of the sea!” “You’re talking to yourself, Mr. Cheever,” the doorman said politely, and he too–correct, friendly, and content with his ten-dollar tip at Christmas–seems a figure from the enduring past.
Cheever wrote: “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 that we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing.”
Prophetic words. “A world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive.” The New Millenium isn’t just coming, it’s here. And it’s changing, every day, every hour…every minute.
And storytellers – those who continue writing ‘fiction’ – are risking big-time that the vision they ‘serve’ – the vision which guides each of us – may come to nothing.
Cheever says it’s the risk you have to take.
Samuel Beckett says a more nihilistic darker version of the same thing: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
And keep on trying. Even though it may come to nothing.