From 1994: a review of John Cheever’s “Thirteen Uncollected Stories”
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the October 1, 1994, issue of America.
As a writer familiar with the ways of businessmen and lawyers, John Cheever might have ironically enjoyed the difficulties of publishing this slim collection of his untold stories. What began as an act of homage to the memory of a favorite author has turned into a legal nightmare for editor and publisher. The problem was the aesthetic value of the work that Cheever chose not to include in his Stories Collected and the legitimate interest of the reading public for his first writings. But the control of the literary heritage was also at stake and, inevitably, the money too. In short, all the issues that make publishing a complex and controversial profession.
In the end, the Cheever family prevailed, arguing that publishing all of the uncollected stories in book form would damage the author’s reputation. The judgment allowed the family to select a much narrower range of stories that could form a collection, and the 13 published here are the result, the pudding, or part of it, so to speak.
For anyone accustomed to the smooth prose and well-polished setting of Cheever’s suburban world, these stories, mostly from the 1930s, might seem gritty.
And what about eating? For anyone accustomed to the smooth prose and well-polished setting of Cheever’s suburban world, these stories, mostly from the 1930s, might seem gritty. In his introduction to the volume, George Hunt, SJ, points to echoes of Hemingway in terse, emotionally flat prose that reflects – and creates – the mood of dashed hopes and political radicalism that marked the Depression era. . “In Boston, rich people were conditioned like old gentlemen. The nervous wreckage of a dead race.
But even in the first of these stories, Cheever was already heading towards the real subject of his fiction, the often eccentric yearnings of the human heart. For the first-person narrator of “In Passing,” the collection’s first substantial and longest story, the seizure of his family home is framed by the confident rhetoric of Marxist organizer Girsdansky. But the pathos emerges from his mother’s furtive desperation, his father’s naïve optimism, and his younger brother’s determination to grab hold of the gold rings that creep inexorably out of reach. His own emotions remain understated, and by the end he emerges from the cold autumn of the story, “scraping the fallen leaves and wondering where I should be this season in another year”.
The setting for the first half of “In Passing” is Saratoga, NY, during racing season, an ironic contrast to Girsdansky’s searing attacks on capitalism. But Cheever returned to the world of leads and touts in later stories to explore the game’s 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 in the meantime falls in love with Joe Clancy, a playful Irishman. Apart from her family connections, Mrs Dexter’s main speech to Lord Devereaux is Lila’s sensitivity: “Beneath all this cheerfulness there is great sadness and longing” – a truth the mother realizes just in time to come to terms with the choice of his daughter and dismiss the Englishman. Cheever can’t resist a fairy tale that ends here with Joe winning the Holly Stakes, his last bet before quitting.
But even in the first of these stories, Cheever was already heading towards the real subject of his fiction, the often eccentric yearnings of the human heart.
Gambling and romance are also intertwined in the other race track stories, usually at the expense of romance. In “His Young Wife”, the eldest husband watches his marriage slip away into youth and the seductions of risk. Even if he is not a gambler himself, he bets his future on the addiction of his young rival to bets and wins back his wife. “Her sobs were hard and fast like the breathing of a tired person. But it didn’t hurt because he knew she wasn’t crying out of longing, fear, regret or pain… [she was] crying like a young child at the rediscovery of his immense happiness.
A third racing story, “Saratoga”, brings together two hereditary gamblers, Roger and Judith, both addicted to the upside down life of being flush and being broke. Like other regulars on the Cheever 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 countryside. But at the end of the story, Roger has won the big bet and joins Judith who watches impatiently the sale of a favorite filly, to the hypnotic rhythm of the auctioneer’s pitch: “Ten cents, who will give me twelve ?”
In the preface to his Stories Collected, Cheever had some unflattering things to say about young writers and himself in particular. “We see a writer clumsily learning to walk, to tie his tie, to make love and to eat his peas with a fork. He appears quite alone and determined to learn. Naïve, provincial in my case, sometimes drunk, sometimes obtuse, almost always awkward, even a selected exhibition of his early work will be a bare story of his struggle to receive an education in economics and love. That “naked history” is there, but so are some pretty successful efforts to create the distinctive style that would dress it so richly.
And beyond that, we shouldn’t miss those “constants” that Cheever, as the same preface claims, ingrained in his mature fictional world: “a love of light and a determination to trace a moral chain of ‘to be”. Some of these stories are perhaps immature, but not awkward, and certainly much less “naked” in their revelations of the writer than the letters and diaries that were published with his family’s approval and involvement. Franklin Dennis did Cheever no disservice with this collection and did his admirers a favor.