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The 15-Minute Pulitzer: The Chekov of the Suburbs

by Craig B | Jan 31, 2018

Book Review: John Cheever's winner of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Stories of John Cheever

cover for John Cheevers short story collection, The Stories of John CheeverI don’t think any of us are old enough to have been around when Anton Chekov was, but many of us were around for John Cheever, and though at first it may seem that two gentlemen nearly a century apart could have little in common (Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1979 for the book under examination, The Stories of John Cheever, and Chekov wrote the Cherry Orchard in 1903), I would argue that the lives depicted in Cheever’s stories are often falling apart over … cocktails …, much as in Chekov, and that the amount of detail I learned about suburban commuting life and train schedules in upper-middle America from John in many ways smacks of the same strange isolation of a fading Russian aristocracy, etc. as depicted by Anton. Thus, Cheever, the Chekov of the Suburbs.  The alliteration is just a bonus.

But now, perhaps, to get down to brass tacks.  Ok, nothing that serious.  I’ll just say there were some really great stories in Cheever’s collection.  Looking over the titles that Wikipedia lists as notable I recognized “The Swimmer” as one that had stood out to me, it may have even been my favorite, and that story seems to hold the key to what I liked most about Cheever’s book.  When John upped the “atmosphere” of his work, when flights of fancy took his characters (or was it just Cheever himself) and he incorporated a dream sequence as in “The Death of Justina” or an eroding fantasy as in “The Swimmer,” I was most taken in.  The more straightforward stories were always insightful but the irony they incorporated, especially the earlier ones, often came off a grade gimmicky even as it brought the ghost of a gleeful grin for the glibness of youth.  The alliteration is still just a bonus.

That said, when talking about John Cheever I’d like to quote what he was able to say about one of his editors, Harold Ross, that “he seems to have done more good than anything else,” and to those of the Cheever following among a certain young, ambitious, literary crowd (a crowd no doubt growing older as we speak and feeling startled at my comparisons and criticisms (just wait till the 21st century folks come up with their own Cheever/Chekov corollary, that could really capsize their conceptions, I calculate)) that might take offense at such a sideways compliment, I would say that I do think Cheever’s place in American literary history is seemly and above all secure, so please don’t scare (here’s to no century ever getting too old for alliteration!), it’s just that for me Cheever’s stories seem to be waiting for something.  But I’m willing to keep looking.  Maybe I’ll find it in one of his novels.

Craig B author Craig B is a thirty-something lover of books, movies, and rock and roll whose grandmother still worries that he might not be eating enough. (Love you, Grandma!) He lives with his charming wife in the small town of Berne, IN (in sight of the clock tower) where he busies himself keeping the Roses of Sharon in check and training his chinchilla in the ancient arts of the Ninja. Craig’s current favorite book is Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.
  • Craig B is a thirty-something lover of books, movies, and rock and roll whose grandmother still worries that he might not be eating enough. (Love you, Grandma!) A favorite book of Craig’s is Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.
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