Sunday, May 27, 2012

On John Cheever, 'The Dante Of The Cocktail Hour'

The next instalment of my column for New Delhi's The Sunday Guardian.

An Indian city’s suburbs are, typically, squalid, overcrowded areas inhabited by those who can’t afford to live closer to the city’s centre. The notion of a suburb is very different elsewhere, particularly on America’s eastern seaboard, where they’ve been viewed as havens of homogeneity, places to move to when one has children, picket-fenced dwellings from where middle-management men in grey flannel suits emerged to commute to and from offices in the city. As John Cheever wrote in a 1960 piece for Esquire just before his own move to Westchester, “My God, the suburbs! They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory, and we thought of them as a loss of privacy, a cesspool of conformity and a life of indescribable dreariness in some split-level village where the place-name appeared in the New York Times only when some bored housewife blew off her head with a shotgun”.

Cheever, whose 100th birth anniversary is this week, captured the malaise of suburban life like no other. Though he wrote five novels – of the last, Colm Toibin said, “If you ignore the upbeat, cheesy ending, Falconer is the best Russian novel in the English language” -- it’s his short stories that Cheever is remembered for.  He was to influence others such as John Updike, and Matt Weiner, creator of Mad Men, has cited him as well as Richard Yates as inspirations for the show. (In the first season, Don and Betty Draper live on Bullet Park Road, a reference to a Cheever novel.)  In a 1992 episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza’s to-be wife discovers a cache of amorous letters written by Cheever to her father, and in the same year there was a commercial for Levi’s directed by Tarsem Singh that was a take-off on ‘The Swimmer’, one of Cheever’s best stories, earlier made into a 1968 film starring Burt Lancaster.

Like that story, the others possess an autumnal melancholy akin to what Orhan Pamuk referred to as huzun in his book on Istanbul. The titles themselves are revealing: ‘O City of Broken Dreams’, ‘Torch Song’, ‘The Season of Divorce’, ‘The Sorrows of Gin’. Most are set in the 1950s, that period of American promise after World War Two and before Vietnam. Cheever satirises and sometimes mythologises the lives of men who are anxious not to betray their potential, drinking too much, conducting casual affairs, observing their wives and children with an equal mixture of pride and helplessness. Sunday evening shadows lengthen over the lawn in the suburb of Shady Hill as they brood over disagreements and disappointments, trying to rise above them by attending one party too many. Not for nothing was Cheever referred to as “the Dante of the cocktail hour”.

As a repressed homosexual in a loveless marriage for most of his life – as well as an alcoholic – Cheever’s treatment of women in his fiction is problematic, a charge also levelled against other writers of his time. They stay at home; they shop; they exchange gossip; and, when they aren’t tender objects of desire, can be vain and demanding. It’s not as easy as calling Cheever a misogynist; rather, most of his women – in ‘A Country Husband’, for instance – exist to valorize or oppress the men. At the other end of the scale, in stories such as ‘Reunion’, ‘The Five Forty Eight’ and ‘Goodbye My Brother’, is Cheever’s consummate ability to portray the anxiety beneath the artifice in sonorous, graceful sentences that are, in Hanif Kureishi’s words, “intelligent and resonant, poetic and ineffable”. Cheever himself once wrote, “The constants that I look for are a love of light and a determination to trace some moral chain of being”.

In one of his early stories, ‘The Enormous Radio’, a couple in a Sutton Place apartment finds that their radio has the ability to pick up the conversations of others in their building. All is revealed to them: bitterness, jealousy, heartbreak and the difficulty of keeping up appearances. In the same manner, Cheever was able to tune in to the frequency of quiet desperation and broadcast its voice to the rest of us.


Alok said...

You didn't mention his journals which are even better than his stories.

I loved the title "The Dante of the Cocktail hour"!!

Unknown said...

I think Geoff Dyer feels the same way about Cheever's journals. I must get around to reading all of them, as well as the Blake Bailey bio