As Richard Ford says, Grand Central Station is a place where anything could happen — any two people could meet.
The story is set in the 1950s or 60s, the heyday of ‘the perfect nuclear family’. It was a big deal back then not to have a father. Divorce was rare. Women were not financially supported. It is highly probable the boy was the only child in his class without a father at home. This would add to the pain of missing him.
COMPACT STORY FORM
“Reunion” is a compact short story of around 1000 words. Most of Cheever’s stories are much longer than this one. The reader deduces a lot:
The father has probably been kicked out of ‘the club’ and couldn’t take his son there even if he wanted to.
His terrible personality is the reason the narrator’s mother divorced him in the first place.
The father is showing off to the son, probably more than he usually does, because of the limited time he has with his boy.
He has a white collar job, and no doubt treats his co-workers and secretary in the same way. I’m imagining he works on Madison Avenue, in the Madmen world.
I imagine the father has some kind of personality disorder which gives him the ability to turn off empathy at will.
Cheever partly achieves compactness by:
Telling rather than always showing. The first paragraph is an excellent example of that.
Omitting the narrator’s reactions, focusing only on the father’s mesmerising horribleness. We only get the narrator’s reaction in the final sentence when it becomes clear he has decided not to see his father again (perhaps only later, after processing events).
The Utopian World is prevalent in children’s literature, known by various names as listed here. Move into young adult, and the top end of middle grade, and you will encounter The Apparent Utopia.
Besides slavery and dystopia, freedom and utopia, there is one other kind of world you can create for the beginning or end of your story: the apparent utopia. This world appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster. The suburbs are often an apparent utopia, with their manicured lawns and friendly neighbours, but in stories there is usually something terrible going on in the suburbs.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the apparent utopia looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the apparent utopia.
Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath.
In the opening of L.A. Confidential (1997), Danny DeVito’s jaded, ironic voiceover explains how Los Angeles was marketed to wholesome family types, but turned out to be anything but.
Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic apparent utopia:
Pines By Blake Crouch
The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)
A SHORT HISTORY OF APPARENT UTOPIAS
The apparent utopia is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:
There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.
This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over.The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’
But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia — one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman — the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.
— A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin
The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern Apparent Utopian story is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place — it simply seemed so. This puts the audience in a state of unease, because from our comfortable position on the other side of the page or the screen, we too, could be living
THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA
Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the ‘apparent utopia’.
“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”
— Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”
Mad Men, of course, is an apparent utopia itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are an apparent utopia, set in mid-century American suburbs.
FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS
American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The apparent utopia symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.
Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.
Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)
Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.
The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban apparent utopias often feature houses made mainly of glass.
So if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know things are rotten just under the surface:
Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”
The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.
Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a superior-feeling teenage NYC girl is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst — and so do we — because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface — because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.
This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which is full of parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no outside opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)
Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted apparent utopia because the town is not presented as a utopia at all — the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start — they didn’t want bigotry in this feel good show.
Perhaps you’ve seen the meme — perhaps on Pinterest — that goes something like, ‘I have experienced all kinds of foolish melancholy — I’ve been homesick for countries I’ve never seen, and longed to be what I couldn’t be’.
There have been various riffs on this line from Cheever: Judith Thurman, contributor to the New Yorker has said, ‘Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.’ Was it Cheever, though, who popularised this concept, by including it as a sentence in this story, The Housebreaker of Shady Hill? Maybe. Then again, apparently there is a German word ‘fernweh‘ which seems to translate to ‘wanderlust’ but apparently there is something of the above sentiment embedded in its meaning. It refers more to ‘a longing for far-off places’. The concept may well have been around for a long time. Personally, I feel this way about Canada and for that reason, I’m not keen to ever go there.
I don’t know if everyone has such a place. But it seems a lot of people pick Paris to be their fernweh place. Some people are even hospitalised after getting to Paris and learning that it’s nothing like the place they imagined. It’s called Paris Syndrome. Japanese nationals are particularly prone to Paris Syndrome. But before we laugh at these Japanese people for their grandiose, incorrect ideas about Paris, it has been observed that Tokyo and Kyoto seem to have become for young American writers what Paris was for Hemingway’s generation.
Case in point:
Tokyo was a place I’d canonised in my head as a pocketbook utopia (unfortunately a common reflex for sheltered white westerners) but the constant sound, visual stimulation and flashing lights from LED billboards and other stimuli were too overpowering.
The “Japan” of writers is, of course, half-imaginary, and what is interesting is how, since the 1960s, this literary conception of “Japan” has changed — from the locus of enlightenment (for the Beats and other spiritual seekers) to an internationalized zone of decadence and self-destruction (for the Byronic heroes of contemporary novels).
Whenever you visit a place you have imagined, it’s always different. It might not be worse different, it might even be better different, but your original longing is ultimately quashed, because the place no longer exists in your mind, having been replaced by reality.
Is “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” ultimately a story about fernweh? The main character wants to be somewhere else, for sure, and wants to be someone else. Ultimately he finds peace by ditching his temporary persona as a thief and returning to his honest, family-man status.
“The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” is remarkable for the way in which Cheever leads the reader towards certain doom, only to end happily. Cheever certainly didn’t want to become predictable in his endings.
John Cheever’s ecstatic and ultimately redemptive vision makes him singular among the suburbs’ sad bards; Cheever is rare among writers for his ability to consistently pull off believable happy endings….Ultimately the story has a comedic structure: The world gets more and more disordered, but in the end it’s put back together anew.
But is the ending really a happy one, or are we listening to an unreliable — possibly manic — narrator?
The Housebreaker of Shady Hill is one of Cheever’s most well-known and analysed short stories, along with The Swimmer, which is also set in Shady Hill. Do you use the word ‘housebreaker’ yourself? It’s not in my active vocabulary. But in England between about1660 and 1800, ‘housebreaking’ was considered a different crime from ‘burglary’ even though they were essentially the same thing. ‘Burglary’ was worse because it was done at night, whereas housebreaking was carried out during the day. Crimes committed at night were thought to be worse, even when they were exactly the same crime, because they were scarier.
This distinction had obviously gone by the time John Cheever wrote his short story.
The Beers were shoestring aristocrats of the upper East Side. They were elegant and charming but had lost their money. Alfreda took a number of jobs in the thirties & forties to help their finances. They did some unsavory things but managed to get by on their charm. Their children went to expensive schools. They were waiting for several relatives to die and leave them money. Eventually, they did die and the money they left the Beers was invested in the market – and tripled. Bob bought back everything his father lost.