Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Oct. 1, 1994 issue of America.
As a writer conversant with the ways of businessmen and lawyers, John Cheever might have wryly appreciated the travails involved in publishing this slim collection of his previously uncollected stories. What began as an act of homage to the memory of a favorite author turned into a legal nightmare for both editor and publisher. At issue was the aesthetic value of work Cheever chose not to include in his Collected Stories and the reading public’s legitimate interest in his early writing. But control of the literary estate was also at stake and, inevitably, money as well. In short, all the issues that make publishing the complex and controversial business it is.
In the end, the Cheever family prevailed, arguing that publication of all the uncollected stories in book form would do a disservice to the author’s reputation. The judgment allowed the family to select a much smaller range of stories that could form a collection, and the 13 published here are the result, the pudding, or a portion of it, so to speak.
For anyone accustomed to the smooth prose and well-glazed decor of Cheever’s suburban world, these stories, mostly from the 1930’s, may seem rough fare.
And what of the eating? For anyone accustomed to the smooth prose and well-glazed decor of Cheever’s suburban world, these stories, mostly from the 1930’s, may seem rough fare. In his introduction to the volume, George Hunt, S.J., points to the echoes of Hemingway in the laconic, emotionally flat prose that reflects—and creates—the mood of dashed hopes and political radicalism that marked the Depression era. “In Boston the wealthy people were conditioned like old gentlemen. The nervous wreckage of a dead race.”
But even in the earliest of these stories, Cheever was already moving toward the true subject of his fiction, the often eccentric longings of the human heart. For the first-person narrator of “In Passing,” the first substantial story and the longest in the collection, the foreclosure on his family home is bracketed by the confident rhetoric of the Marxist organizer Girsdansky. But the pathos emerges from his mother’s furtive despair, his father’s naïve optimism and his younger brother’s determination to grab the gold rings moving inexorably out of reach. His own emotions remain understated, and at the end he walks out of the story’s cold autumn, “scuffing up the dead leaves and wondering where I should be in that season in another year.”
The setting for the first half of “In Passing” is Saratoga, N.Y., during the racing season, an ironic contrast with Girsdansky’s virulent attacks on capitalism. But Cheever returned to the world of tracks and touts in subsequent stories to explore the gambling impulse and its aberrations. In a singular foray into the world of Edith Wharton (“The Man She Loved”), a fortune-hunting mother places her bet on an English nobleman as a husband for her daughter who meanwhile is falling for Joe Clancy, a gambling Irishman. Apart from her family connections, Mrs. Dexter’s principal pitch to Lord Devereaux is Lila’s sensitivity: “Beneath all that gaiety is a great sadness and longing”—a truth the mother comprehends just in time to accept her daughter’s choice and dismiss the Englishman. Cheever can’t resist a fairy-tale ending here by having Joe win the Holly Stakes, his final gamble before quitting.
But even in the earliest of these stories, Cheever was already moving toward the true subject of his fiction, the often eccentric longings of the human heart.
Gambling and romance intertwine in the other race track stories, as well, usually to the detriment of romance. In “His Young Wife,” the older husband watches his marriage slip away to youth and the enticements of risk. Though not a gambling man himself, he stakes his future on his young rival’s addiction to betting and wins back his wife. “Her sobbing was hard and quick like the breathing of a person who is tired. But it didn’t hurt him because he knew she wasn’t crying out of longing or fear or regret or pain…. [she was] crying like a young kid over the rediscovery of her own immense happiness.”
A third racing story, “Saratoga,” throws together two hereditary gamblers, Roger and Judith, both addicted to the topsy-turvy life of being flush and being broke. Like Cheever’s other habitués of the track, they regularly resolve to quit and even marry on the promise of deciding to invest their recent winnings in an idyllic cottage in the country. But at story’s end, Roger has won the big bet and joined Judith who eagerly watches the sale of a favorite filly, to the hypnotic rhythm of the auctioneer’s pitch: “Ten hundred, who’ll give me twelve?”
In the preface to his Collected Stories, Cheever had unflattering things to say about young writers and himself in particular. “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.” That “naked history” is here, but so are some quite successful efforts at creating the distinctive style that would clothe it so richly.
And beyond that, we shouldn’t miss those “constants” that Cheever, as claimed in the same preface, anchored his mature fictional world: “a love of light and a determination to trace some moral chain of being.” Immature some of these stories may be, but not embarrassingly so, and certainly much less “naked” in their revelations of the writer than the letters and journals that have been published with the approval and participation of his family. Franklin Dennis has done Cheever no disservice with this collection and has done his admirers a favor.