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Posts Tagged ‘John Cheever’

Cheddar, Cheever, and the Burbs

September 1, 2015 | by

An illustration from Muriel Stanek’s How People Live in the Suburbs, 1970.

Fifty years ago, John Cheever published The Wapshot Scandal, his second novel. Like many second novels, it’s more ambitious and more playful than its predecessor, the work of a writer who suspects he’s better than he feared. The traditional form suddenly seems boring, the same old themes threaten a categorization that the writer doesn’t want, and the writer—encouraged by praise, validated by awards, perhaps softened by income—realizes he can write just about anything. So he does.

The Wapshot Scandal begins where The Wapshot Chronicle ended: with the Wapshot family leaving the safety of St. Botolphs and searching for fulfillment in more modern suburban communities. An acrid whiff of cynicism rises from the page: we know this won’t end well, Cheever knows we know, and now it’s a matter of how and when. Moses and Coverley Wapshot bring their wives to Proxmire Manor and Talifer, respectively; the first is an archetype of the suburban nightmare, the second an archetype of a Cold War community, built around a missile-research facility.

Scandal is very much of its time, but even in its time the satire was well-trod: husbands drink too much, wives betray, wealth corrodes, families splinter, sex—granted or withheld—destroys. Cheever’s cynicism isn’t unique; he never claimed it was. What was, and what remains, unique, are passages like this:

The village, he knew, had, like any other, its brutes and its shrews, its thieves, and its perverts, but like any other it meant to conceal these facts under a shrine of decorum that was not hypocrisy but a guise or mode of hope.

This is what made Cheever special: he understood that the desperate idealism behind existential decay is still idealism. Which brings me to, well, me. Read More »

False Alarm

May 27, 2015 | by


Cheever, right, with Updike on The Dick Cavett Show in 1981.

From “On the Literary Life,” a series of excerpts from John Cheever’s journals published in our Fall 1993 fortieth-anniversary issue. Cheever, born on this day in 1912, had amassed twenty-eight notebooks by the time he died, in 1982; he wrote the extracts below between 1974 and 1978. “These were workbooks, a place to take notes, to practice and to fume,” Cheever’s son, Benjamin, says in his introduction. “Please remember that this is just one piece of the man. An interesting piece, I think: diverting, instructive, candid, and intimate. But not the whole guy.”

The telephone rings at four. This is CBS. John Updike has been in a fatal automobile accident. Do you care to comment. I am crying. I cannot sleep again. I think of joining Mary in bed but I am afraid she will send me away. I think I am right. When there is a little light I feed the dogs. I hope they don’t expect to be fed this early every morning, she says. I do not point out that John will not die every morning and that in any case it is I who feeds them. The restraint costs me nothing. When I go into the kitchen for another cup of coffee she empties the pot into my cup and says: I was just about to have some myself. When I insist on sharing the coffee I am unsuccessful. I do not say that the pain of death is nothing compared to the pain of sharing a coffee pot with a peevish woman. This costs me nothing. And I see that what she seeks, much more than a cup of coffee—is to gratify a sense of denial and neglect—and that we so often, all of us, put our cranky and our emotional demands so far ahead of our hunger and thirst. Read More »

M.F.A. vs Donleavy

April 23, 2015 | by

John Deakin’s portrait of J. P. Donleavy in London, 1950s.

An exchange between J. P. Donleavy—who’s eighty-nine today—and John Irving, from our Spring 1988 issue. Some two years previous, in his Art of Fiction interview, Irving had disparaged Donleavy at length, speaking of their meeting at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Irving taught in the seventies:

I like meeting other writers, and Iowa City is a good place to meet them, but I didn’t enjoy Donleavy. John Cheever and I, who were in a particularly ritualized habit of watching Monday Night Football together, while eating homemade pasta, were happy to hear that Donleavy was coming. We’d both admired The Ginger Man and we wanted to meet the author. I went to the airport to meet him; I’d written three novels—but not yet The World According to Garp; I wasn’t famous. I didn’t expect Donleavy to have read anything of mine, but I was surprised when he announced that he read no one living; then he asked if we were in Kansas. I told him a little about the Workshop, but he was one of those writers with no knowledge about writing programs and many prejudices about them: to be a student of writing was a waste of time; better to go out and suffer. He was wearing a very expensive three-piece suit, very handsome shoes, and handling a very posh walking stick at the time, and I began to get irritated. In a meeting with Workshop students, he told them that any writer who was lowering himself by teaching writing wasn’t capable of teaching them anything. And so I was quite cross by the time I had to pick up the great man and drive him to his reading. I said we would be taking Mr. Cheever with us to the reading, and that both Mr. Cheever and I were great admirers, and that although I knew Mr. Donleavy did not read anyone living, he should know that Mr. Cheever was a wonderful writer. His short stories were models of the form, I said. But when I introduced Cheever to Donleavy, Donleavy wouldn’t even look at him; he went on talking to his wife, about aspirin, as if Cheever wasn’t there. I tried to say a few things about why so many American writers turned to teaching—as a way of supporting themselves without having to place the burden of making money upon their writing; and as a way of giving themselves enough time to practice their writing, too.

But Donleavy wasn’t interested and he said so. The whole trip he was taking was tiresome; the people he met, the people everywhere, were tiresome, too. And so Cheever and I sat up front in the car, excluded from the conversation about the evils of aspirin, and driving the Donleavys about as if they were unhappy royalty in a hick town. I will say that Mrs. Donleavy appeared to suffer her husband’s rudeness, or perhaps she was just suffering her headache. Cheever tried a few times to engage Donleavy in some conversation, and as Cheever was as gifted in conversation as any man I have ever met, I grew more and more furious at Donleavy’s coldness and unresponsiveness and total discourtesy. I was thinking, frankly, that I should throw the lout in a puddle, if there was one handy, when Cheever spoke up. “Do you know, Mr. Donleavy,” Cheever said, “that no major writer of fiction was ever a shit to another writer of fiction, except Hemingway—and he was crazy?” That was all. Donleavy had no answer. Perhaps he thought Hemingway was still a living writer and therefore hadn’t read him, either. Cheever and I deposited the Donleavys at the reading, which we spontaneously decided to skip. It was many years later that I met and became friends with George Roy Hill, who told me that he’d been a roommate of “Mike” Donleavy at Trinity College, Dublin, and that “Mike” was just a touch eccentric and surely not a bad sort. But I remembered my evening with Cheever and told George that, in my opinion, Donleavy was a minor writer, a shit, or crazy—or all three. I should add that drinking wasn’t the issue of this unpleasant evening; Cheever was not drinking; Donleavy wasn’t drunk—he was simply righteous and acting the prima donna. I feel a little like I’m tattling on a fellow schoolboy to tell this story, but I felt so awful—not for myself but for Cheever. It was such an outrage; that Donleavy—this large, silly man with his walking stick—was snubbing John Cheever. I suppose it’s silly that I should still be angry, but George Plimpton told me that Donleavy has a subscription to The Paris Review [a complimentary subscription—Ed.]; this presents an apparent contradiction to Donleavy’s claim that he doesn’t read anyone living, but it gives me hope that he might read this. If the story embarrasses him, or makes him angry, I would say we’re even; the evening embarrassed Cheever and me, and made us angry, too.

Donleavy wrote the following response; the editors also published a riposte from Irving. Read More »

Party Line

April 7, 2015 | by


Not Nabokov’s kind of place.

Reading about the parties of decades past, it sometimes seems they were all similar, and all awful—or at least that they had an intolerably high jerk quotient. Think of the celebrations in Cheever novels, or O’Hara stories: full of jerks, everyone drunk and uncouth and parochial.

It should come as no shock that Vladimir Nabokov took a jaundiced view of the midcentury American party. In fact, were I some hapless Wellesley or Ithaca hostess, you couldn’t have paid me enough to invite him to a dinner or sherry hour, even after he became a literary sensation. Imagine the appraisal you’d be in for—his curled lip, his chilly politeness, his scathing mental commentary, his careful evasion of the menu’s vulgarities. For your trouble, you’d be caricatured, at best, as some sort of composite Charlotte Haze–esque grotesque, fawning over his manners and dripping with self-assured provincialism. And that would be the good outcome. It’s hard to think of someone you’d want less at a midcentury faculty tea, save maybe a seething Shirley Jackson. 

The following comes from Nabokov’s 1951 story “The Vane Sisters.” Read More »

The Cowboys of Europe, and Other News

September 24, 2014 | by

romanian western

From The Sons of Great Bear, a 1966 Romanian Western.

  • The Western is an integral part of the Hollywood canon, but European filmmakers weren’t about to let Americans have all the fun. Germany and France produced scores of Westerns, in part because “once you found a wide-open landscape vaguely redolent of the American West, they were relatively cheap to make.” But it was Italy that arguably perfected the European Western: “The Spaghetti Westerns, with their multiple aliases (Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite is variously also known as Once Upon a Time ... the Revolution and Duck, You Sucker!), their badly-dubbed voices, their sweaty, sunburned close-ups and their loud, redounding music, were both gothic and grand guignol. They could also be incredibly sophisticated amid all the alarum.”
  • Today in pointless but strangely gratifying thought experiments: What would the longest book in the world look like? (“If there’s a new major character introduced every hundred pages or so, you’d have 100 billion main characters … ”)
  • A second novel is rarely greeted with the exuberance of a first. To help stop “Second Novel Syndrome,” the Whiting Foundation and Slate are compiling a list of under-recognized second novels from the past five years and reminding readers of their joys.
  • The radical linguists of the early twentieth century: “Historically, it was languages that were swept in with strong political, economic, or religious backing—Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, and Chinese in the Eurasian core—that were held to be the oldest, the holiest, and the most perfect in structure, their ‘classical’ status cemented by the received weight of canonical tradition … It was just over a century ago when a group of linguists made an effort to go beyond the language politics of imperialism and nationalism.”
  • Taking a cue from Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” a woman attempts to swim every (public) pool in Manhattan. (Unlike Cheever’s Neddy Merrill, she is not an alcoholic.)


Ovid (or You) in Ossining, and Other News

July 31, 2014 | by


Photo: Jason O'Neal, via Newsweek

  • Want to buy John Cheever’s old house in Ossining? Have at it. (A mailbox bearing the Cheever name is still there.)
  • On the late Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex, a 1978 retelling of Arthurian legend: “Berger adopts the distinct voice of the medieval-epic narrator, slipping easily into the rhythm and pattern of courtly speech, with its ‘And’s and ‘Now’s and ‘Whilst’s, its frequent and self-serious references to the glory of God and the sin of doubt. He uses the old style of speech to tell what has always been a surprisingly modern story: that of a kingdom in which every socioeconomic problem is brilliantly resolved and its people turn to a pure and destructive religious idealism.”
  • The actress Lisa Dwan is taking her production of three one-woman Beckett playsNot I, Rockaby, and Footfalls—on a world tour.
  • Advice for reading blurbs: Don’t. “Cover blurbs aren’t reviews. They’re advertisements. No space for balanced, nuanced positivity. Nothing can be interesting; it must be fascinating. Good isn’t good enough; it must be great.”
  • Rock stars are not gods but rather human beings whose emotions happen to resonate with millions—emotions that are inspired by other human beings, some of whom have written memoirs. These books are often disregarded as attempts to cash in, but while the books are sometimes bitter, they’re rarely cynical. Taken together, they comprise a shadow history of classic rock, an account from within the aura and from the margins of the rock star’s hero journey.”