How To Write Like John Cheever

How To Write Like John Cheever

American writer John Cheever (1912 – 1982) is sometimes described as ‘Chekov of the Suburbs”. (Why? Both writers are assiduously apolotical?)

If you’ve not encountered Cheever before, perhaps start with his most famous story: “The Swimmer” (1964). This story is a great example of how Cheever was able to mix the Real with the Surreal.

That said, you’ve probably encountered Cheever even without reading Cheever. If you’ve seen Mad Men, the world and characters are heavily inspired by the work of John Cheever.

A brief squiz through academic papers on John Cheever throws up a main point of interest: How his alcoholism informed his work. He’s one of those guys who was permanently drunk. He first entered rehab in 1975. He also smoked like a chimney and died of lung cancer at the age of 70. But for the last five years of his life, his thoughts were pretty scattered. Cheever’s alcohol dependency is interesting to critics because the disorientation which affected his functioning at the end of his life can actually be seen across all of his work.

However, I agree with Paul Harding when he dismisses such a reductive reading of Cheever’s work:

to the people who say Cheever is the great chronicler of postwar depthless upper middle-class prosperity and alcoholism, I say—Baloney!

Paul Harding

Cheever’s alcoholism was far from the most interesting thing about him. In my opinion, it was the most boring.

Cheever never described himself as ‘cynical’. He preferred ‘mean’.

As a kid, John Cheever was wealthy. His dad was a financially successful shoe salesman. The family lived in a Victorian mansion. But then everything went bust. The dad, Fred, turned to drink and took off. John’s older brother was also called Fred. Together, the brothers found a house of their own where they flatted together while their mother opened a small gift shop. John Cheever’s young life is a riches to rags story, then he finds his way back to riches. (The Cinderella plot.) He published over 200 stories across his lifetime but it was “The Stories of John Cheever,” and his novel “Falconer” which made him comfortable. According to himself, Cheever earned enough to ‘feed the family and buy a new suit every other year’, but the social capital that comes from being a prominent writer is a form of riches in its own right.

I reckon he would’ve been an absolute pain in the ass as a youngster. He got into Thayer Academy but they kicked him out for being (according to Cheever) ‘quarrelsome, intractable’ and ‘a lousy student’. He was only 18 when his first short story was accepted for publication in a big, reputable magazine The New Republic. The story was inspired by him getting expelled and is called “Expelled”. It is highly unusual that this story made it ‘across the transom‘. But America loves a redemption story. Cheever is his own redemption story.

Another important thing to know about John Cheever: He was a queer man living through homophobic times. He was a husband and father (To Susan, Ben and Fred) and remained in a traditional marriage. He was gay, bi+ or pan. (We don’t know for sure how his attraction worked, and Cheever himself didn’t have access to all of those contemporary words.) The author’s orientation adds an extra layer to the undertones of his work, and makes them far more interesting. He internalised society’s homophobia, which no doubt had a profound impact on his own life satisfaction. In turn, he worried that his son Ben was gay, just as his own father worried about him.

“If there’s someone who never loved himself, it was John.”

Max Zimmer, chief acolyte

Cheever genuinely loved his wife but really despised his mother, which can come through on the page, in detestable strong women who have power over men. Cheever was influenced by Freud, and looked for Freudian reasons for his queerness. He hit upon the idea that he turned out queer because his mother had been the breadwinner in his family as a youngster.

SUBJECT MATTER

The words “truth” and “reality” have no meaning at all unless they are fixed in a comprehensible frame of reference. There are no stubborn truths. As for lying, it seems to me that falsehood is a critical element in fiction. Part of the thrill of being told a story is the chance of being hoodwinked or taken. Nabokov is a master at this. The telling of lies is a sort of sleight of hand that displays our deepest feelings about life.

The Paris Review interview

Robert G. Collins (“From Subject to Object and Back“) divides Cheever’s subject matter into three broad categories:

  1. Stories featuring a young man, or a married couple, living in New York after WW2. These characters are immigrants to the city. They’re not too happy with their jobs. They’re not really successful in other ways, either. (We might call them low mimetic heroes.) Cheever was once himself an impoverished young immigrant to New York City.
  2. Stories featuring the middle class suburbs of New York. Some commentators call this ‘Cheever Country’. “Cheever attempted to suffuse his surreal suburbs with qualities of love, courage, faith, and compassion.” “The Swimmer” belongs to this category.
  3. Stories set outside America. The main characters are “free floating” but these are still suburban stories at their heart.

John Cheever was of the view that fiction is ‘not suggestive of anything in particular’. Instead, it’s about ‘what astonishes us in life’. He believed humans were drawn towards an almost spiritual sort of light. In the context of storytelling, we might call this the epiphany or anagnorisis. Lyrical short stories place great emphasis on the anagnorisis.

Cheever makes frequent use of mythical tropes and creatures but did not write myth. Nor is his work purely figurative.

He told his friend John Updike that a psychologist once noticed in him an interest in criminality. We see this come through in his early short stories especially: “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill“, “Goodbye My Brother“, “The Enormous Radio“, “Torch-Song“, “The Five Forty-eight“.

HOW CONSERVATIVE WAS CHEEVER?

As a social critic, Cheever can be read as simultaneously transgressive and conservative.

  • Transgressive: Once a Cheever character deviates, they deviate completely. Take “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.” Johnny Hake is fired and starts plundering neighbouring houses for cash.
  • Conservative:  The forces of madness are staved off but only just. One must work hard and stay married. (John Cheever himself stayed married when many in the same circumstances would not.) Whenever his fictional characters face the moral dilemma of choosing between a dull life and one of utter chaos, characters go with the dull. Narrative interest derives from the discomfort of making that choice and living with it.

STORY OPENINGS

INTERVIEWER

What about the beginning of stories? Yours start off very quickly. It’s striking.

CHEEVER

If you’re trying as a storyteller to establish some rapport with your reader, you don’t open by telling him that you have a headache and indigestion and that you picked up a gravelly rash at Jones Beach. One of the reasons is that advertising in magazines is much more common today than it was twenty to thirty years ago. In publishing in a magazine you are competing against girdle advertisements, travel advertisements, nakedness, cartoons, even poetry. The competition almost makes it hopeless.

John Cheever, The Paris Review

SETTING

Cheever’s world is that of the Westchester suburbs. Westchester County is located in the New York metropolitan area and Downstate New York, north of New York City and south of Upstate New York. Think Don Draper, Roger Sterling (of Mad Men).

John Updike observed that Cheever’s suburbs were a ‘simulcra of paradise’:

His errant protagonists move, in their fragile suburban simulacra of paradise, from one island of momentary happiness to the imperilled next. 

John Updike, The New Yorker

A story such as “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” shows how Cheever could simultaneously defend and criticise the suburbs. He had a nuanced relationship with them.

American commentators will sometimes say that stories such as “The Swimmer” and “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” ‘could take place anywhere’ but for those of us living outside America, these are all very distinctively American stories.

INTERVIEWER

But a great number of your stories defy dating; they could take place anytime and almost anyplace.

CHEEVER

That, of course, has been my intention. The ones that you can pinpoint in an era are apt to be the worst. The bomb-shelter story (“The Brigadier and the Golf Widow”) is about a level of basic anxiety, and the bomb shelter, which places the story at a very particular time, is just a metaphor . . . that’s what I intended anyhow.

John Cheever, The Paris Review
WHAT WAS GOING ON IN AMERICA DURING CHEEVER’S LIFETIME?

In 1961 John F. Kennedy became President. People were talking about the ‘New Frontier’: laws designed to fight unemployment, poverty and other social problems. The American public was, largely, optimistic about the country’s future.

Did it pan out, though? Well, John F Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963. Meanwhile, conservative Democrats didn’t think much of the New Frontier laws and were starting to join sides with Republicans.

Lyndon B. Johnson came next. His mission was to continue the work that Kennedy started, with the aim of turning America into a ‘Great Society’. This was the era of Medicare and Medicaid.

But then the Vietnam War happened. All that social justice stuff was put to one side. The focus was now on Vietnam.

You can’t talk about America in the 1960s without also talking about the Vietnam War. It cost America a lot of money. It went on for ages. Many young Americans were killed, maimed and injured.

What was the war even about? Basically, North Vietnam was a communist regime and the West stepped in. The war ended up pitting North Vietnam against South Vietnam, whose biggest, most powerful ally was the United States of America. (South Vietnam = the Viet Cong.)

Long story short, Americans were feeling mighty dispirited after this war compared to how they’d been feeling before Kennedy was assassinated. This is when recreational street drugs big time came to America. (A more contemporary short story writer, Poe Ballantine, wrote about this in his late 1990s short story “The Blue Devils of Blue River Avenue“, in which the ‘blue devils’ of the title are a type of drug aimed at disillusioned and disenfranchised young people.

Hippie culture happened next, as Americans realised in greater numbers that they should probably be standing up for their own rights and dignity.

Then there was the Cold War, a period of 40 years: The post WW2 period all the way through until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. It’s called a ‘cold’ war because there was no actual large-scale fighting between countries, just the constant threat of it, hanging over everyone.

In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed by the American government which (ostensibly) gave equal voting rights to African-Americans. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 as he continued to fight for Black rights.

The feminist movement and the sexual revolution and students protesting about Vietnam were also important in shaping the 1960s.

How is this history stuff relevant to reading the work of Cheever? Well, many of his stories start off perky and end with an inverted emotional valence. I.e. dismally. These stories are microcosms of mid-century America as a whole.

STYLE

One never puts down a sentence without the feeling that it has never been put down before in such a way, and that perhaps even the substance of the sentence has never been felt. Every sentence is an innovation.

John Cheever, The Paris Review Interview

STORY STRUCTURE

One of the reasons I’m attracted to Cheever is that he really doesn’t give a shit about plot.

Paul Harding
STORY SHAPES

Writers use the word ‘plot’ in a specific way, and when they say someone doesn’t ‘plot’ they often mean ‘doesn’t pay any attention to the types of stories that have come before (i.e. genre conventions). What good writers often do, though, is create a story by plotting intuitively. I reject the idea that writers don’t plot. Plotting can be wholly subconscious if you’re sufficiently experienced in reading and writing good story.

Paul Harding goes on to say this about the shapes of Cheever’s stories, using “The Jewels of the Cabots” as a standout example:

In his hands, it becomes narrative circles—he keeps orbiting around it’s almost like he gets too close to the sun, which is the truth, so then he orbits back out into the dark distance—and then he always returns.

Paul Harding

Jane Alison in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode might describe this plot shape as Radial.

Narratives that strike me as radial are those in which a powerful centre holds the fictional world characters’ obsessions, incidents in timetightly in its gravitational force. That centre could be a crime or trauma or something a figure wants to avoid but can’t help falling into: something devastatingly magnetic. Unlike in a spiral, the story itself — the incidents we see dramatized — barely moves forward in time. Instead, a reader might have a sense of being drawn again and again to a hot core — or, conversely, of trying to pull away from that core. You might already know the end at the start and get many fractured views of the same moment, or many fractured views of things avoiding that moment. You might feel a sense of violent scatteration from a central point. Radials can be centrifugal or centripetal, but linear they are not.

Jane Alison

(More on plot shapes.) When describing this sort of plotting, commentators will frequently talk about refraction, spirals, gravity. You can see now why Harding even speaks of Einstein. Like all writers who came after Einstein, Cheever was influenced by the big scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century — the breakthroughs which led to literary Modernism.

SYMBOLS

INTERVIEWER

But certainly you use a lot of resonances from myths . . . for example, references to the Bible and Greek mythology.

CHEEVER

It’s explained by the fact that I was brought up in southern Massachusetts, where it was thought that mythology was a subject that we should all grasp. It was very much a part of my education. The easiest way to parse the world is through mythology. There have been thousands of papers written along those lines—Leander is Poseidon and somebody is Ceres, and so forth. It seems to be a superficial parsing. But it makes a passable paper.

The Paris Review

CHARACTERS

Cheever’s characters are adult, full of adult darkness, corruption, and confusion. They are desirous, conflicted, alone, adrift. They do not achieve the crystalline stoicism, the defiant willed courage, of Hemingway’s.

John Updike, The New Yorker
INTRODUCING CHARACTERS

This way of writing is considered old-fashioned now, but John Cheever describes a scene, the characters and how they relate to each other before switching into singulative mode. Other 20th century writers did the same thing, including Flannery O’Connor, William Trevor and Richard Yates. Younger writers are encouraged (in writing groups, in MFAs) to convey information drip by drip. (I’m not convinced this makes for a better story.)

NAMING CHARACTERS

 I’ve written a story about men with a lot of names, all abstract, names with the fewest possible allusions: Pell, Weed, Hammer, and Nailles, of course, which was thought to be arch, but it wasn’t meant to be at all . . .

The Paris Review
CONTRADICTION AND COUNTERPOINT

Speaking of “The Jewels of the Cabots”, writer Paul Harding tells The Atlantic:

Brilliantly, Cheever gives the narrator two equally strong but precisely opposite impulses. His first impulse is to confess: The story’s meant to be a confession, in the sense of St. Augustine. He wants to confess his sins, put all his cards on the table. But then he also feels an opposite, contradictory impulse, which is just as strong: to conceal. To evade. 

The Atlantic

Harding points out that all art is about contradiction and juxtaposition. In music we call it counterpoint. In painting it’s the foreground/background, tonal differences. In writing the focus is typically on life vs death. Writers also achieve counterpoint by focusing first on the universal then on minute detail, ‘the grain of sand’. (I call this shift to ‘the universal’ in writing The Overview Effect (a phenomenon from psychology).

Harding also points out that good stories are ‘structured around truly irreducible questions’. Cheever was very good at creating ‘mysteries you can’t get to the bottom of’.

It’s Einstein, it’s relativity: Nothing has meaning without being relative to its opposite.

Paul Harding

NARRATION

Cheever often made use of a an ‘arch’ or ‘chain’ as a ‘structuring device’. (Check out Wayne Stengell’s 1987 work “John Cheever’s Surreal Vision and the Bridge of Language”.)

This device bridges the gap beetween “horrifying American nightmare and an idealized, seemingly Jungian dream world of archetypes, doubles, light and shadows, paersonae, and masks” (Stengell). For instance, in “The Swimmer”, the ‘chain’ is the suburban swimming polls. The pools function as a bridge between the main character’s dreamlike present and his nightmare-like past.

If Cheever were painting these stories, he’d have used a vivid palette. He made much use of visual imagery writing detailed descriptions which have resonance for the reader. I bet if you’ve read “The Swimmer”, even if it was a while ago, you can still see the landscape he created for us. (Unless you have aphantasia, that is.)

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

JOHN UPDIKE

Both Updike (1932 – 2009) and Cheever were twentieth century white, male American authors and their work had overlapping themes: Both wrote about American society as they knew it, focusing on the unstable political and social condition. John Updike was quite a bit younger than Cheever but they’re considered contemporaries. They admired each other’s work.

RAYMOND CARVER

The ‘opposite’ of John Cheever is sometimes said to be Raymond Carver (May 25, 1938 – August 2, 1988). Just as frequently, the two writers are compared. (Cheever and Carver were drinking buddies at Iowa.)

Cheever = elegant, upper-class fabulism.
Carver = working class realism.

RICHARD YATES

Cheever’s work is better compared to that of Richard Yates.

  • Both Cheever and Yates are both impeccable stylists.
  • They both had greatest success with novels but were equally talented as short story writers.

The standout difference between them: Yates sticks to the real world.

CHEEVER STORIES IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER

“Angel of the Bridge, The”
“Another Story”
“Artemis, the Honest Well Digger”
“Bella Lingua, The”
“Boy in Rome”
“Brigadier and the Golf Widow, The”
“Brimmer”
“Bus to St. James’s, The”
Chaste Clarissa, The
“Children, The”
“Chimera, The”
Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor
“Clancy in the Tower of Babel”
“Clementina”
“Common Day, The”
Country Husband, The
“Cure, The”
“Day the Pig Fell Into the Well, The”
“Death of Justina, The”
“Duchess, The”
“Educated American Woman, An”Content note: Cheever’s misogynistic streak (the same beast as his internalised queerphobia) comes out strong in this one.
Enormous Radio, TheOne of the most read stories.
“Five-Forty-Eight, The”
“Fourth Alarm, The”
“Geometry of Love,The”
“Golden Age, The”
Goodbye, My BrotherAdult siblings return to the family home and try to pretend that they still have money and good relationships with each other. One cynical brother, despised by the others, points out how ridiculous they all are. Another brother hits him in the head intending in the moment to kill him. He doesn’t actually kill his brother, but feels he had to give it a go.
“Hartleys, The”
Housebreaker of Shady Hill, The
Jewels of the Cabots, The
“Just One More Time”
“Just Tell Me Who It Was”
“Lowboy, The”
“Marito in Città”
“Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin”
“Metamorphoses”
“Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear, A”
“Montraldo”
“Music Teacher, The”
O City of Broken Dreams
“O Youth and Beauty!”
“Ocean, The”
“Percy”
Pot of Gold, The
“Reunion”
“Scarlet Moving Van, The”
“Seaside Houses, The”
“Season of Divorce, The”
Sorrows of Gin, The
“Summer Farmer, The”
“Superintendent, The”
“Sutton Place Story, The”
Swimmer, TheThis is perhaps Cheever’s most famous story.
“Three Stories”
“Torch Song”A young man called Jack moves to New York City and becomes close friends with a young woman called Joan. Jack watches Joan lurch from one awful relationship to another. Although terrible things happen to Joan, later in life Jack accuses her of killing everything she touches. Jack dies; Joan goes on. Through adversity she has learned how to be happy.
“Trouble of Marcie Flint, The”
“Vision of the World, A”
“Woman Without a Country, A”
“World of Apples, The”
“Worm in the Apple, The”
Wrysons, The