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 Mad Men 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).
WHAT HAPPENS IN “REUNION”
A son looks forward to seeing his father for the first time in three years, but when they meet he witnesses how his father treats others, and comes to the realisation that he is a terrible person.
This story is an example of a viewpoint character as first person narrator. The main character of this story is the father. The narrator is the Every Boy, who looks up to his father. However, you could equally argue the ‘main character’ status is shared, because it’s the child who has the anagnorisis at the end. This is why the concept of ‘main character’ is problematic.
The shortcoming of the narrator is that he is a child. He can’t choose his father. By the father’s absence, the narrator has been idolising an image of his father who was never real.
The shortcoming of the father is huge. He has no empathy for other people, does not respect rules, and is trying to get his son to join him in his assholery.
The narrator wants to enjoy some time with his father. As a child, he is automatically predisposed to giving him respect.
The father wants to show his son how to be a man. Perhaps because he senses he has limited time in which to do so, he goes over the top in his dick-waving oneupmanship, and is terrible to everyone he meets.
Every encounter in this story is a minor big struggle. Unlike in, say, a classic mythical structure, these big struggles don’t escalate. I mean, the big struggles don’t get worse. Each person reacts in basically the same way — avoidantly. But it is the cumulation of behaviours which make it seem to the son, and to us, like the big struggle is getting worse and worse.
There is no exact point when the son realises his father is terrible — rather, it’s a cumulation of things. Perhaps he could’ve forgiven his father if he was rude once. But Cheever gives us more than enough incidents to make the father’s terrible behaviour a pattern.
It is revealed why the father behaves the way he does right at the end, when the father says, “I want to get a rise out of this chap.” He’s using these people as playthings.
“The Wrysons” is interesting as a study of writing technique because it is a story with the theme of ‘lack’ running throughout, and Cheever masterfully chose to employ some narrative techniques which are themselves about describing not what did happen but what didn’t, and what might have.
Apart from The Bella Lingua, which is set in Italy, this and the preceding number of Cheever’s short stories were all set in his famous Shady Hill. Did Cheever want to live in a place such as Shady Hill? I suspect he would have called the whole place ‘phony’, and in The Wrysons he once again dips into the idea that in the suburbs where everything seems perfect, there must be rot beneath the veneer. In fact, he has gone much further with this in other stories such as The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, in which a man burgles his own neighbours (I guess I didn’t really spoil anything for anyone there — it’s all in the title!), and in “The Enormous Radio”, which is not set in the suburbs but is all about the feeling that you’re living two steps away from terrible, terrible happenings.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WRYSONS”
A suburban couple with one daughter have zero interests except the wish for their comfortable suburb to stay exactly the same. The only difficult thing about the wife’s life seems to be her regular unsettling dreams in which someone explodes a hydrogen bomb and causes the end of the world. She also dreams that she poisons her own daughter. The husband thought he felt nothing when his mother died, but deals with her death by occasionally waking in the middle of the night and baking a cake in the kitchen to remind him of his childhood, in which his mother and he would bake together to create a cosy atmosphere. The husband is unaware of his wife’s dreams; the wife is unaware of her husband’s cake-baking habit, until one night he burns the cake, wakes her up, and they go back to bed more confused about the world than ever.
SETTING OF “THE WRYSONS”
If you’ve read other, better-known stories of Cheever you’ll be familiar with this place in middle to upper-class America — it’s not a real suburb in any real town, but Cheever returns to it as a setting time and again. Perhaps his most famous story set in Shady Hill is The Swimmer. This family lives in the fictional Alewives Lane. They have a nice garden. ‘They were odd, of course’, writes Cheever — and with a masterly use of ‘of course’ we are to take it for granted that everyone who might seem ‘normal’ is actually harboring a hidden or overt eccentricity.
It’s significant in this story that at the time this story was written, the baking of cakes in the home was strictly a feminine task, a point of pride, in fact, and for a married man to don an apron and make a cake — a Lady Baltimore cake, no less — would have been thought terrible emasculating. Indeed, when the wife is finally woken by the smell of burning, she admonishes the husband by telling him he should have woken her if he was feeling hungry, as if the kitchen was her own private space.
This is also a time — difficult for those of us who are younger to imagine — in which people genuinely feared a hydrogen bomb ending everything.
CHARACTERS IN “THE WRYSONS”
We are told about the Wrysons in the opening paragraph. Of all the things a writer might choose to bring to the fore, what should it be? Cheever has chosen to give us the detail we might know of this couple if we lived in the same suburb with them. At this point we don’t know anything about what goes on inside their home, only that which we can garner from normal interactions with neighbours:
THE WRYSONS WANTED things in the suburb of Shady Hill to remain exactly as they were. Their dread of change-of irregularity of any sort-was acute, and when the Larkin estate was sold for an old people’s rest home, the Wrysons went to the Village Council meeting and demanded to know what sort of old people these old people were going to be. The Wrysons’ civic activities were confined to upzoning, but they were very active in this field, and if you were invited to their house for cocktails, the chances were that you would be asked to sign an upzoning petition before you got away.
Although I have a general idea of what ‘upzoning’ entails, I looked it up and learned that upzoning is:
The practice of changing the zoning in an area typically from residential to increased commercial use. This is a controversial practice because upzoning allows for greater density and congestion in the area which affects the current occupants. The term can also apply when changing the zoning to limit growth and density.
We know that the Wrysons are against the upzoning, hoping to keep this upper-middle class suburb from commercial enterprise, even of the most ‘residential’ in nature, e.g. the old people’s home.
The Wrysons were stiff; they were inflexible. They seemed to experience not distaste but alarm when they found quack grass in their lawn or heard of a contemplated divorce among their neighbors.
Donald Wryson was a large man with thinning fair hair and the cheerful air of a bully, but he was a bully only in the defense of rectitude, class distinctions, and the orderly appearance of things.
Donald has a ‘jackass laugh’ which tends to alienate people, including his wife, who fears that if she were to tell him about her dreams he would only respond with his horrible laugh. A character described as ‘jackass’ isn’t likely to be endearing, though I find him to be an empathetic character despite his flaws; this is probably because his general unpleasantness is only outlined by our unseen narrator, whereas the actual scenes show his relationship with his dead mother and how his biggest secret in life is baking cakes in the middle of the night (daring to go against gender norms), and scenes are always more powerful than overviews.
I always find it interesting that it is possible to describe a woman as either ‘attractive’ or ‘unattractive’ (or somewhere in between, as here) and it is expected the reader knows exactly what is meant by that. This is probably due to the existence of the Western Feminine Beauty Standard, which is seen everywhere in the media, and which we all understand. (Compare with the description of Donald Wryson, whose attributes are described for the reader to judge.)
Irene Wryson was not a totally unattractive woman, but she was both shy and contentious, especially contentious on the subject of upzoning.
We are to believe that Irene is equally bereft of real life purpose as her husband.
Sometimes the characters who are not ‘on stage’ in the story are just as significant as those who are. For example, Donald and Irene’s daughter Dolly is not really a part of this story — just mentioned. The name seems significant: In the story she is mute and a prop, a kind of doll to make this little family into a ‘real’ family, in an milieu when children were requisite. Dolly is important to Irene and her dreams, and Donald Wryson’s mother is important in explaining why he bakes the cakes.
Mrs. Wryson had few friends and no family. With her husband gone, she got a job as a clerk in an insurance office, and took up, with her son, a life of unmitigated melancholy and need. She never forgot the horror of her abandonment, and she leaned so heavily for support on her son that she seemed to threaten his animal spirits. Her life was a Calvary, as she often said, and the most she could do was to keep body and soul together.
She had been young and fair and happy once, and the only way she had of evoking these lost times was by giving her son baking lessons. When the nights were long and cold and the wind whistled around the four-family house where they lived, she would light a fire in the kitchen range and drop an apple peel onto the stove lid for the fragrance. Then Donald would put on an apron and scurry around, getting out the necessary bowls and pans, measuring out flour and sugar, separating eggs. He learned the contents of every cupboard. He knew where the spices and the sugar were kept, the nutmeats and the citron, and when the work was done, he enjoyed washing the bowls and pans and putting them back where they belonged. Donald loved these hours himself, mostly because they seemed to dispel the oppression that stood unlifted over those years of his mother’s life-and was there any reason why a lonely boy should rebel against the feeling of security that he found in the kitchen on a stormy night? She taught him how to make cookies and muffins and banana bread and, finally, a Lady Baltimore cake.
THEME OF “THE WRYSONS”
Appearance does not match reality.
This is not a particularly enlightened observation of theme on my part — I feel like almost all stories have this exact theme.
[The Wrysons] lived in a pleasant house on Alewives Lane, and they went in for gardening. This was another way of keeping up the appearance of things, and Donald Wryson was very critical of a neighbor who had ragged syringa bushes and a bare spot on her front lawn. They led a limited social life; they seemed to have no ambitions or needs in this direction, although at Christmas each year they sent out about six hundred cards.
But what else does Cheever do with it? He doesn’t go in for melodrama — this is no American Beauty or Desperate Housewives, in which the things happening in your own suburban street really are pretty surprising. No, this is simply a story about a wife who has bad dreams, and a man who bakes cakes in the middle of the night, which in the scheme of things isn’t too shocking. What Cheever does here is describe the feeling of being chased by those judgey eyes, those of the bearded man with garlicky breath, and how the need to keep up appearances can impact your life. Although the Wrysons go the extreme effort (and expense) of sending out 600 Christmas cards each year, the side-shadowing paragraph suggests that even if they both died, the return Christmas cards would keep coming to them — if the senders don’t even know they’re dead, what do they really care that they’re alive? The cards are nothing more than a formality.
People are inherently unknowable because there will always be gaps between us.
Because of the gaps between them, the story ends with the husband and wife knowing very little about each other than they knew before; this even though they’re married and presumably know each other better than anyone else in the world. The Christmas card exchanges hypothetically continue because it’s impossible to keep up with 600 acquaintances (a theme particularly relevant in the modern age of social media ‘friending’.)
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN “THE WRYSONS”
AN IMAGINARY CHARACTER
This imaginary character — imagined by the characters, in fact — is described at the beginning of the story and is mentioned again right at the end, and has the purpose of lending a sense of closure to the story, but more importantly, conveying the theme of what is now known as the ‘imaginary audience’ — heightened, no doubt, in the age of the Internet, in which everything you do is influenced by the notion that someone is watching you and judging. John Cheever personifies this feeling with a rather unflattering thumbnail character sketch:
They seemed to sense that there was a stranger at the gates-unwashed, tirelessly scheming, foreign, the father of disorderly children who would ruin their rose garden and depreciate their real-estate investment, a man with a beard, a garlic breath, and a book.
And again the stranger is described in the final paragraph, in which the characters almost have some sort of epiphany about each other, but not quite:
[Irene] turned off the oven, and opened the window to let out the smell of smoke and let in the smell of nicotiana and other night flowers. She may have hesitated for a moment, for what would the stranger at the gates—that intruder with his beard and his book—have made of this couple, in their nightclothes, in the smoke-filled kitchen at half past four in the morning?
DESCRIBING WHAT IS NOT THERE
Following on from creating a character who doesn’t really exist, Cheever describes the Wrysons’ house in general by homing in on what is not there rather than what is:
There was hardly a book in their house, and, in a place where even cooks were known to have Picasso reproductions hanging above their washstands, the Wrysons’ taste in painting stopped at marine sunsets and bowls of flowers.
It is unusual to describe a place by what is not there, but it’s in keeping with the theme: The bearded stranger is not there, either. What else is not in the house? Communication between the couple — tenderness, intimacy. There is no real purpose to their lives, apart from as parents to Dolly. Being interested in upzoning does not mean their minds are actively engaged in anything of lasting worth. Instead of longing for what could be, they long for what is not.
Years later [after his mother’s death], when Donald was living alone in New York, he had been overtaken suddenly, one spring evening, by a depression as keen as any in his adolescence. He did not drink, he did not enjoy books or movies or the theatre, and, like his mother, he had few friends. Searching desperately for some way to take himself out of this misery, he hit on the idea of baking a Lady Baltimore cake.
A Lady Baltimore cake is a particularly well-presented, fussy type of cake, which is assembled in creamed layers and then iced all over and often further decorated. This is a cake that is presented to impress; its appearances are all important.
When the cake was done he iced it, ate a slice, and dumped the rest into the garbage.
This scene is resonant because it feels like such a waste to spend all that time creating a beautiful cake, only to dump most of it in the bin. Are the Wrysons perhaps only sampling a ‘slice’ of all life has to offer? Sure, they’re involved in the upzoning council hoo-ha, but as Cheever’s narrator explains, they are interested in nothing else. The cake is hidden from everyone, including Irene, though when she does finally see it, it’s an embarrassing, small, burnt thing not fit for consumption. She has discovered something about her husband that he didn’t want her to see, but in fact she hasn’t seen all those times he made a perfectly delicious and presentable cake. As far as she knows at the close of the story, her husband can’t bake. She has learnt only a tiny fraction of who he is, and is therefore baffled. She probably doesn’t connect that the smell of cake and maybe noises coming from the kitchen may be provoking her dreams of hydrogen bombs. Likewise, Irene does not tell Donald about her dreams.
“It’s a cake,” he said. “I burned it. What made you think it was the hydrogen bomb?”
This story contains an excellent example of this technique, which Cheever used previously in Just One More Time, and seems to have found it useful. Sideshadowing is a technique particularly well-suited to this tale full of different kinds of lacks and needs, because sideshadowing by definition describes what didn’t happen, but which might have. Note the phrases which turn this story into metafiction in which the reader, alongside the writer, is encouraged to consider the various ways in which this story might end:
GIVEN these unpleasant facts, then, about these not attractive people, we can dispatch them brightly enough, and who but Dolly would ever miss them? Donald Wryson, in his crusading zeal for upzoning, was out in all kinds of weather, and let’s say that one night, when he was returning from a referendum in an ice storm, his car skidded down Hill Street, struck the big elm at the corner, and was demolished. Finis. His poor widow, either through love or dependence, was inconsolable. Getting out of bed one morning, a month or so after the loss of her husband, she got her feet caught in the dust ruffle and fell and broke her hip. Weakened by a long convalescence, she contracted pneumonia and departed this life. This leaves us with Dolly to account for,and what a sad tale we can write for this little girl. During the months in which her parents’ will is in probate, she lives first on the charity and then on the forbearance of her neighbors. Finally, she is sent to live with her only relative, a cousin of her mother’s, who is a schoolteacher in Los Angeles. How many hundreds of nights will she cry herself to sleep in bewilderment and loneliness. How strange and cold the world will seem. There is little to remind her of her parents except at Christmas, when, forwarded from Shady Hill, will come Greetings from Mrs. Sallust Trevor, who has been living in Paris and does not know about the accident; Salutations from the Parkers, who live in Mexico and never did get their lists straight; Season’s Greetings from Meyers’ Drugstore; Merry Christmas from the Perry Browns; Santissimas from the Oak Tree Italian Restaurant; A Joyeux Noel from Dodie Smith. Year after year, it will be this little girl’s responsibility to throw into the wastebasket these cheerful holiday greetings that have followed her parents to and beyond the grave… But this did not happen, and if it had, it would have thrown no light on what we know.
The reader is brought back into the ‘real story’ with
What happened was this:
STORY SPECS IN “THE WRYSONS”
First appeared in The New Yorker in September 1958.
“The Wrysons” is one of Cheever’s shorter short stories, clocking in at only 2,600 words.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH “THE WRYSONS”
A short while before writing this story, Cheever wrote a kind of character sketch called “The Worm In The Apple”, which may be considered a preparatory story leading to The Wrysons, which has more of a plot. The most fleshed out ‘character’ in The Worm In The Apple is actually our unseen narrator, who is determined to see something rotten about a seemingly perfect all-American family that he imagines all sorts of horrible things about them. The narrator in that story has a more developed personality than most of Cheever’s third-person narrators, which are fairly bland and less biased, with a slightly pessimistic male sensibility.
WRITE YOUR OWN
A general rule in fiction seems to be: The more perfect-seeming the environment, the more rotten it will be underneath. This rot will be revealed to the reader, perhaps gradually, perhaps all at once, over the course of the story. The horror genre loves the suburbs, as do thrillers and psychological crime.
A short story, though, is likely to be successful if these extremes are dialled back a little, as Cheever has done here. If we’re not talking about murders, extra-marital affairs and illicit drug use in the suburbs, what might readers be left with which is perhaps even more interesting than any of those things, which we’ve seen many times and have come to expect? What are your characters most worried about? Can you shed some light on their psychological turmoil without changing their outward worlds very much at all?
In a story about lack, Cheever has described what isn’t there, made use of sideshadowing to show what didn’t happen and gave his characters a partial epiphany. In short, his narrative devices match his theme. What if your theme not about lack but about (over)abundance? What literary devices might you use then?
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 about 1660 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.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE HOUSEBREAKER OF SHADY HILL”
It’s a pretty simple story on the surface. A man with a family in the suburbs loses his job at company that manufactures parablendeum, which seems to be kind of color-tinted Saran wrap. (I’m pretty sure Cheever invented this word because neither Google nor I seem to have heard of it.) He gets fired, decides to go into business on his own, and does a pretty pathetic job of it. Quickly, things get bleak. He runs out of money and can’t bring himself to tell his wife. And once that charade starts, he feels that his only hope is to break into his neighbors’ houses and steal their cash in the middle of the night…One night after a late dinner party, he returns to house of his rich hosts and breaks into it. He tiptoes into their bedroom where they’re sleeping, sees a pair of pants hanging over a chair, and fishes out his friend’s wallet. There’s $900 cash inside. He flees with all of it into the night. This one act haunts the narrator for the rest of the story, and very nearly undoes him completely. He becomes totally convinced of his criminality. He starts seeing theft and sin everywhere he goes. He starts feeling as though everyone knows he’s done wrong. He starts to behave like person being eaten alive by guilt.
The word ‘housebreaker’ reminds me a little of the highly gendered term ‘homewrecker’. ‘Housebreaker’ refers not only to Hake’s break-and-entering criminality but also to the way his family is about to fall apart.
SETTING OF “THE HOUSEBREAKER OF SHADY HILL”
[Mr Hake] lives in a fictional neighborhood called Shady Hill, an opulent hamlet not unlike like the one in Ossining, New York, where Cheever really lived….This is one of the things that’s so apparent when you’re reading Cheever: his openness to redemptive beauty. His suburbs aren’t corrupt, awful places. They’re not places that have dark, ugly roots that he’s trying to expose—which is often the basic project in the subgenre of American suburban fiction (and film and TV). Cheever’s world is one that, no matter how buttoned-up it may be, is continuously ruptured by unexpected beauty…we’ve become almost conditioned to believe that manicured suburban aesthetics are only an illusion to conceal some fundamental rottenness.
Johnny Hake calls Shady Hill a banlieue. In France, a banlieue (French: [bɑ̃ljø]) is a suburb of a large city.
CHARACTERS IN “THE HOUSEBREAKER OF SHADY HILL”
The first person narrator introduces himself as an opening to the story, and Johnny Hake is the most average seeming guy you could hope to meet in this milieu:
My name is Johnny Hake. I’m thirty-six years old, stand five feet eleven in my socks, weigh one hundred and forty-two pounds stripped, and am, so to speak, naked at the moment and talking into the dark.
I notice that a hake is a type of fish, and that Cheever isn’t shy of using allegorical names, but I’m not sure that this phonetic coincidence means anything.
It’s been said that this story is Cheever’s best example of a Puritan mindset, and sure enough, Hake tells us that he grew up in the relevant churches:
I was conceived in the Hotel St. Regis, born in the Presbyterian Hospital, raised on Sutton Place, christened and confirmed in St. Bartholomew’s…
Though it’s a little odd that he tells us where he was conceived. How many regular people even know that? Coupled with the fact that he’s standing in the dark talking to himself, this guy is odd. How much of what he says should we believe?
Unfortunately for Johnny Hake, he is not a sociopath. After lying to his wife about finances and stealing from his neighbour, his conscience bothers him a lot. Everyone can see it. It’s affecting his state of mind. In many short stories, this character would undergo a character change, prompting him to return the money he stole, but if you look carefully, Johnny’s ‘scope of change’ isn’t all that big.
When he lies to the patrol about having a dog in that final scene, we see he’s still living with deceit:
This curious episode renders problematic Hakes’ new-found probity. Although we are supposed to believe Hake underwent some kind of conversion, since he does not rob the Pewters,’ his interaction with the patrolman tells us he still has an inclination to conceal the naked truth. Hake is still an impostor of sorts, thief or not. Hence, he utilizes his skills at dissembling to solve a problem that began with dissembling. He illicitly enters his neighbor’s house for a second time, albeit this time to repay, rather than steal. Hake’s crisis of conscience appears rather superficial. After all, it was rather easily dispelled soon after he got his job back. In truth, Hake was operating under delusions from the very start, and his crisis of conscience brings him no closer to really understanding why he was ever prompted to steal. It was a delusion for Hake to think that stealing money would somehow solve his financial problems, a fact highlighted by the farrago of feelings concerning death, his mother, and the pastoral that occurred previous to his theft. And it is similarly a delusion to think that returning the money will really make life any better; Hake is a false convert. He ends the story exactly as he began it, talking to himself in the dark.
Freudian psychoanalysis can be applied to the character of Johnny. First, a main character needs desire: conscious desire and desire under the surface.
Johnny’s conscious desire: To provide financially for his family, at whatever cost.
Johnny’s hidden desire: To create a kind of Arcadia, and make amends with his estranged mother who he misses dearly. He wants to go back to the garden of childhood.
Main characters also require two different kinds of shortcoming:
Johnny’s psychological shortcoming: In order to have a better life, Johnny is going to have to get his priorities straight. Having money won’t help if he becomes such an unpleasant person that his family can’t stand to be around him.
Johnny’s need: Johnny must stop lying and stealing because it’s working on his conscience even though he seems to be getting away with it.
[Johnny’s boss] was the kind of despot who needed a front, and this was Gil Bucknam’s job. He was the old man’s right hand, front, and peacemaker, and he could garnish any deal with the humanity the old man lacked, but he started staying out of the office-at first for a day or two, then for two weeks, and then for longer. When he returned, he would complain about stomach trouble or eyestrain, although anyone could see that he was looped. This was not so strange, since hard drinking was one of the things he had to do for the firm. The old man stood it for a year and then came into my office one morning and told me to get up to Bucknam’s apartment and give him the sack.
(I had not heard the word ‘looped’ to mean ‘drunk’ before. There were several other slang words I hadn’t heard before; another is ‘gumshoe’. Johnny ‘gumshoed over the grass’. Shoes in the late 1800s were made of gum rubber – the soft-soled precursors of the modern sneaker. The phrase “to gumshoe” meant to sneak around quietly as if wearing gumshoes, but later came to mean ‘detective’.)
Gil and the horrible boss fire Johnny from the stable company that enabled him to buy a nice house in the suburbs and provide for a wife and four kids. Cheever does an excellent job of making Gil and the big boss sound awful to work with. We have some sympathy for Johnny, the average guy stuck between two… sociopaths, perhaps, whose lack of conscience stand in contrast to Johnny’s heavy one.
Christina is somewhat culpable in the narrator’s mind. Even though she is portrayed as a caring mother, her disinterest in the finances leaves the burden of money entirely to the husband. Also, his marriage to Christina is not approved by his mother, which has caused an irreparable rift. She also rolls over away from his embrace the night he decides to go out and steal, suggesting that if only she’d been awake and responsive, he might not have stooped to the levels he did.
Her neck is graceful, her breasts gleamed as they rose in the cloth of her dress, and, seeing the decent and healthy delight she took in her own image, I could not tell her that we were broke.
The milieu is important to understanding this dynamic: men were taught to be the breadwinners, and a failure to bring home the bread equated to a failure of manhood. Women were taught to be mothers and homemakers, and that a strong interest in finances was unwomanly.
She had sweetened much of my life, and to watch her seemed to freshen the wellsprings of some clear energy in me that made the room and the pictures on the wall and the moon that I could see outside the window all vivid and cheerful. The truth would make her cry and ruin her make-up and the Warburtons’ dinner party for her, and she would sleep in the guest room. There seemed to be as much truth in her beauty and the power she exerted over my senses as there was in the fact that we were overdrawn at the bank.
Johnny Hake does not like the Warburtons, partly because he looks for reasons to dislike them before robbing them.
The Warburtons are rich, but they don’t mix; they may not even care. She is an aging mouse, and he is the kind of man that you wouldn’t have liked at school. He has a bad skin and rasping voice and a fixed idea-lechery. The Warburtons are always spending money, and that’s what you talk about with them.
As Dyer explains, the Warburtons serve as an ‘analog’ to John’s anxiety. No matter how much money the Warburtons have, there is always something to be worried about:
We know that Hake is worried about money, and that he hasn’t told his wife about their financial troubles. An analog to this anxiety about problems with money is Sheila Warburton’s fear of her husband being mugged in the city. The Warburtons have money, and their money is what separates them and the other suburban dwellers from the slum that exists in the city. This is the tacit backdrop to Hake’s financial troubles, the conflict between the dissolute, victimizing city and the theoretically secure suburbs.
Sometimes, characters who are off-stage in the story are as influential to the plot as any who are present. In this case, we have the narrator’s mother, a stingy but well-off old woman of the type Johnny has learned to despise:
She sent me through college, arranged for me to spend my vacations in pleasant landscapes, and fired my ambitions, such as they are, but she bitterly opposed my marriage, and our relations had been strained ever since…I wanted to do it all over again in some emotional Arcadia, and have us both behave differently, so that I could think of her at three in the morning without guilt, and so that she would be spared loneliness and neglect in her old age.
John Dyer explains that:
[Hake’s] mother was the person who enabled him to achieve his station in life. She educated him, fired his ambitions, and he wants to keep the house and family he has built with the tools she gave him. However, at the same time, Hake is not pleased with the changes his life has undergone as a consequence of his success. His marriage has caused a rift between him and his mother, for example, and now, while he is living in Shady Hill, he is cut off from her. To regain the love of his mother, he would have to change his lifestyle, something which he refuses to do, although retaining that lifestyle is also the source of much of his guilt. Hake thus feels regret for leaving behind the very things which have allowed him to push forward in his life. He cannot go back for them without altering everything he so wants to retain, although back in time are the only things that can fully perfect his present life.
No matter how cruel [Cheever’s] characters are to each other, no matter how much they disappoint each other or what sins they commit, there’s still a sense that there’s light in his world. It comes through in the way he describes trees so well, and smells and breezes and the ocean. The landscape balances out the torment of the tortured characters within it—and sometimes, that beauty is even enough to save them.
If our conscience starts to prick, humans have the ability to reason away our own badness, convincing ourselves (or trying to) that what we have done is completely justified. Some people are better able to do this than others.
Once we start to fixate on something, we see that thing everywhere — for the first time — even though it’s been there all along.
I looked at the paper. There has been a thirty-thousand-dollar payroll robbery in the Bronx. A White Plains matron had come home from a party to find her furs and jewelry gone. Sixty thousand dollars of medicine had been taken from a warehouse in Brooklyn. I felt better at discovering how common the thing I had done was. But only a little better, and only for a short while. Then I was faced once more with the realization that I was a common thief and an impostor, and that I had done something so reprehensible that it violated the tenets of every known religion…My conscience worked so on my spirits—like the hard beak of a carnivorous bird—that my left eye began to twitch, and again I seemed on the brink of a general nervous collapse.
It’s like when you buy a new car, or shirt, and suddenly you see that car/shirt everywhere, even though you’d not really noticed it before.
Cheever really didn’t mind making use of the elements to hammer home a point, and he does it again here. Before Hake enters the Pewters’ house to attempt another burglary, it starts raining. Caught in the rain, Hake has a revelation:
I was not trapped. I was here on earth because I chose to be. And it was no skin off my elbow how I had been given the gifts of life so long as I possessed them, and I possessed them then—the tie between the wet grass roots and the hair that grew out of my body, the thrill of my mortality that I had known on summer nights…I looked up at the dark house and then turned and walked away.
In this story, the epiphany that comes from getting wet is akin to a kind of baptism.
Cheever has already made use of the weather earlier. It’s about to storm as he goes to tell his superior that he’s been fired:
It was early in the fall-the World Series was being played-and a thunderstorm was entering the city. […] Gil was in bed, and Mrs. Bucknam let me into the bedroom. The storm was about to break now, and everything stood in a gentle half darkness so much like dawn that it seemed as if we should be sleeping and dreaming, and not bringing one another bad news.
Now this is definitely dangerous territory for a writer. Precipitation has been tempting young writers as a dramatic climax for a long time: Write yourself into a corner and you always have the weather. To me, it’s the deus ex machina of everyday spiritual crises—guilt and sin cleansed by rain—and it just might be the most handy cop-out available. (When I get caught in the rain, I have yet to find God—I mostly get cold and wet and pissed.) But somehow, in the way the prose functions, Cheever, goddamn, he pulls it off. Despite all of my resistances, I believe the character really is relieved of his guilt….through the music of that language, and perhaps the repetition of certain images from earlier in the story, he’s able to conjure in me a convincing experience of something that is about as abstract and fuzzy as you can get: a man being set free of his conscience.
Cheever introduces nudity in the opening scenes of the narrative and then plays with this trope in order to make statements about his characters’ feelings of innocence and guilt. In one sense, nakedness is a sign of the unadorned nature that is part of the literary convention of pastoralism. Throughout the story the protagonist, Johnny Hake, desires to return to the days of his youth, and specifically to his vacations in the countryside, when he was carefree and innocent. When he expressees these desires, he day-dreams of an imaginary and timeless paradise. In this light, nakedness refers to the shamelessness of the idyllic, prelapsarian, pastoral landscape.
Second, Hake’s job with the plastics business gave him the money that enabled him to reside in his suburban haven. The loss of his job, and his subsequent failure as an independent businessman, is the root of his anxiety. Hake equates plastic with health and wealth. He thus dreams of food in terms of precious gems. Furthermore, his dream of the plastic-wrapped bread takes the form of an advertisement. The bread is something that can be his if he has the money to buy it, which implies that it is something that he does not have in the context of the dream. And because he does not have the bread now, it is an enchanted article, seen as an advertisement, which makes things appear more attractive than they really are. The shiny bread is thus both a sign of the wealth he once had access to, and of his nostalgic desire to reclaim that wealth.
THoSH is one of Cheever’s longer short stories, at over 8,000 words.
This is the 22nd story in the Vintage Cheever collection.
The Housebreaker of Shady Hill first appeared in The New Yorker in 1956.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Read A Glutton For Punishment by Richard Yates. Set in a similar time and place, this is the story of a man who gets fired from a secure job in the city, but his reaction is somewhat different.
Another story which broaches the topic of fernweh is “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” by Alice Munro, in which the main character’s wife enters a care facility due to her Alzheimers. Throughout this story, Iceland is set up as a place where the husband would love to go. But he’s never been there because he fears it wouldn’t live up to his expectations. And his expectations are very high indeed — he’s made a career out of lecturing about the area. This reluctance to visit the place he has studied mirrors the fact that he undergoes no real character change. He is never up front with his wife about his philandering. They will live the rest of their lives apart.
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.
This is a story written ‘for’ The New Yorker, for New Yorkers, which is apparent from the first sentence:
There is no sense in looking for trouble, but in any big, true picture of the city where we all live there is surely room for one more word on the die-hards, the hangers-on, the people who never got along and who never gave up, the insatiables that we have all known at one time or another.
And a description of the Beers’ apartment, zooming in to the smaller details of the city:
Alfreda and Bob […] lived in the East Side apartment house that Bob’s father used to own, surrounded by sailing trophies, autographed photographs of President Hoover, Spanish furniture, and other relics of the golden age. It wasn’t much of a place, really-large and dark-but it was more than they could afford…
President Hoover’s time in office began in 1929 and lasted until 1933, harking back to an earlier time. These characters are living in the past, in a time when ‘aristocrats’ were an untouchable class. By the ‘golden age’, I understand that Cheever is referring to that time Hoover was in office, before the wars had broken out.
The narrator makes it clear that this is a story set between the two world wars, and is not a contemporary story (of the mid 1950s).
I’M SPEAKING of the thirties and the forties now, the years before and after the Big War
What was happening in New York in the between-war years? The Great Depression happened between 1929–1941 and it’s safe to say that no one was having much fun during and between the wars, even if all the technological advances made during this time set the stage for America’s prosperity in the middle of the century.
And what was America like in 1955? As we all know from watching American sit-coms, the 1950s was a generally stable time for Americans and a period often seen as a golden era we might all aspire to once again, regardless of how unusual that decade really was. During the 1950s America’s economy was growing and peaked in the 1960s. Unemployment was low.
That said, a mild recession reached its peak in January 1954, so America was just coming out of that as this story was published. The economy turned sharply downward two years later in the summer of 1957, and reached its low point in the spring of 1958.
So what would have been the general feeling? Would contemporary readers of this story have been feeling optimistic, or pessimistic? I’m going with optimistic for the most part, because whatever was happening in big business would have been less apparent to the middle classes than the fact that all of their friends were buying family cars and televisions and fancy kitchen gadgets which made middle-class lives much easier than ever before.
And what was Cheever feeling? Was he urging readers not to worry about the oncoming economic downturn, because it would be nothing compared to what it had been in the Great Depression? Was he reminding readers that however bad things get, nothing really changes, and good times come again?
Alfreda Beer worked in retail, but there is retail and then there is retail, a distinction that now seems quite foreign, at least to this Australasian reader:
When they were on their uppers, [Alfreda Beer] worked-first at the Steuben glass store, on Fifth Avenue, and then she went to Jensen’s, where she got into trouble by insisting on her right to smoke. She went from there to Bonwit’s, and from Bonwit’s to Bendel’s. Schwarz’s took her on one Christmas, and she was on the street-floor glove counter at Saks the next Easter.
The Steuben glass store, of 667 Madison Avenue, sold fancy crystalware, and people must have stopped buying it up large, because the store closed after 108 years of operation in December 2011.
Jensen’s is a jewellery store at 687 Madison Ave.
Bonwit Teller & Co. was a department store in New York City founded by Paul Bonwit in 1895 at Sixth Avenue and 18th Street. They’ve since gone bankrupt, an Australian company owned it, and even Donald Trump had it for a while.
Henri Bendel sells clothing, handbags and other accessories. They were established in 1895. It’s doing pretty well — its flagship store is still located on Fifth Avenue.
Saks Fifth Avenue has been owned since 1974 by a British company, and still sells expensive clothing to women with its flagship store in New York, though it’s now owned by The Hudson Bay company, which is Canadian.
I’m sure Cheever himself would have been interested to see what became of each of these high-end retail companies over the years — some have survived and thrived; others haven’t. The truth is, the Beers themselves could swing either way. I’m inclined to think the Beers did not do well — long-term — even though the story ends at a point where they are well-off. Those retail stores which have thrived have been savvy about it, and the Beers are not savvy.
Cheever offers up a masterful thumbnail character description before offering us some particular examples, which suggests to the reader that this couple are emblematic of many such people, and there’s nothing particularly unique about them:
I mean the shoestring aristocrats of the upper East Side-the elegant, charming, and shabby men who work for brokerage houses, and their high-flown wives, with their thrift-shop minks and their ash-can fur pieces, their alligator shoes and their snotty ways with doormen and with the cashiers in supermarkets, their gold jewelry and their dregs of Je Reviens and Chanel.
Alfreda, Bob and the Daimler
This is a well-matched couple, for anything else we might say about them. If a significant proportion of marital strife derives worldwide from money troubles, then these two are at least on the same page. They are both happy to spend lots of other people’s money, refusing to worry about it much. They have never known poverty, and are therefore not scared of it:
Alfreda had been to school in Fiesole. Her father, like Bob’s, had lost millions and millions and millions of dollars. All her memories were thickly inlaid with patines of bright gold: yester-year’s high bridge stakes, and how difficult it was to get the Daimler started on a rainy day, and picnics on the Brandywine with the Du Pont girls.
These days, we might call ‘trying to get the Daimler started on a rainy day’ a ‘first-world problem’. Alfreda’s family must have been one of the first to own a motor vehicle. The Daimler Motor Company Limited was very much connected with aristocracy, being a British company and the fact that they were awarded a Royal Warrant to provide cars to the British Monarch in 1902. Daimler lost this privilege in the 1950s after being supplanted by Rolls-Royce. This makes Cheever’s choice of car particularly relevant — even the Daimler has lost its genuine aristocratic status; in the 1950s, the company was forced to produce smaller cars for the mass market to supplement revenue from its high-end models.
The reader is invited to judge Alreda Beer for her lack of mothering interest, and it’s clear by now that Cheever himself doesn’t think much of such women — or of women in general:
She had a couple of children between jobs and she used to leave them in the care of an old Scotchwoman-an old family retainer from the good days-who seemed just as unable as the Beers to make an advantageous adjustment to change.
The way privilege works is, people born to it are buffered by it. They can waste all of their money, do horrible things to their friends and somehow come up smelling of roses, because that’s how privilege tends to work. Just as it’s almost impossible to move from a low-privilege status to a high one, it’s unusual to move from a high privilege status to a low one, because of our larger social networks and superficial characteristics of ‘good-breeding’:
They did some unsavory things; they kited checks, and, borrowing someone’s car for a weekend, they ran it into a ditch and walked away, washing their hands of the whole thing. These tricks brought some precariousness to their social as well as their economic status, but they continued to operate on a margin of charm and expectation-there was Aunt Margaret in Philadelphia and Aunt Laura in Boston-and, to tell the truth, they were charming.
Cheever understands that skin colour is a large part of privilege:
She was a good-looking woman-long-faced and with that New England fairness that seems to state a tenuous racial claim to privilege.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
In this story, John Cheever makes use of a storyteller as narrator, in a similar way to The Great Gatsby — the man telling the story is pretty uninteresting, and we don’t know much about him.He is our ‘spy’ into a lavish world. It’s clear that the narrator does not approve of such people, but why not? Is it because he is below them in the pecking order, or above them? In order to cross paths with such people as the Beers, the narrator must be of a privileged class in his own right.
They were the kind of people that you met continually at railroad stations and cocktail parties.
Though our narrator obviously spends money differently, however much or little he may have. We might argue that ‘class’ is determined not by how much money one has at any given moment, but how one spends it when it’s there. Compared to the narrator, the Beers are an uncouth, reckless class, quite different from himself.
The narrator seems almost envious that while he worries about his class dissolving around him, The Beers seem oblivious to it, and therefore immune to its effects:
They were the kind of party where the company is never very numerous and the liquor is never very good-parties where, as you drink and talk, you feel a palpable lassitude overtaking any natural social ardor, as if the ties of family, society, school, and place that held the group together were dissolving like the ice in your drink.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the narrator is distantly related to the Beers — he refers to ‘Aunt Margaret’ as if he might be one of the old woman’s descendants himself, though obviously not an heir.
PEJORATIVE LANGUAGE TO EXPRESS DISDAIN
Several times Cheever refers to Alfreda’s ‘ash-can fur’ coat rather than to simply her ‘ash fur’ coat, which puts me in mind of the more modern terminology of ‘white trash’.
There is a scene — a turning point scene — in which our narrator meets the Beers on a boat. He’s gone to deliver some presents for his boss, who is due to set sail for England. The Beers happen to be on-board this ship which — symbolically — is brand new but has a dry bar and dry swimming pools — the riches are right there to be seen, but not to be enjoyed, since no one can really enjoy drinking at a bar with no liquor, or swimming in a pool with no water, or reading novels which are under lock and key.
The narrator overhears Alfreda’s ‘boarding-school laugh’ (whatever that sounds like) and learns that the aunt has just died and that the Beers are now rich again. That’s when the ship sets sail — a rather heavy-handed metaphor, perhaps, but it works.
Water is also heavily symbolic for Cheever, who next takes the Beers to the beach, where their fortune in life is compared to waves on a beach — rising and falling, sure, but hey, they’re still at the beach!
They were very aquatic. You know how it is. In the summer months, the northeastern coast up from Long Island and deep into Maine, including all the sea islands, seems to be transformed into a vast social clearing-house, and as you sit on the sand listening to the heavy furniture of the North Atlantic, figures from your social past appear in the surf, as thick as raisins in a cake. A wave takes form, accelerates its ride over the shallows, boils, and breaks, revealing Consuelo Roosevelt and Mr. and Mrs. Dundas Vanderbilt, with the children of both marriages.
Continuing with the ocean theme, our narrator is found ‘all out at sea’.
A SENSE OF UNSETTLING FINALITY
While not exactly a ‘dream sequence’, Cheever ends this story with a scene which may have happened, or it may not. We can’t be sure, because even though the scene of the boat rescue includes very specific detail of the sort your layman storyteller couldn’t realistically make up, the addition of two little words ‘let’s say’ make this a hypothetical scenario in the reader’s mind:
So the summer and the sea will be the setting for their last appearance-their last appearance for our purposes here, at any rate. We are in a small town in Maine — let’s say — and decide to take the family for a sail and a picnic.
The words ‘their last appearance here, at any rate’ is the phrase which leads me to doubt that the Beers will have continued good fortune, or perhaps this is just the narrator’s wishful thinking. Either way, this is a wonderful writing technique to use if you would like to leave the reader with a very unsettling feeling. The other thing Cheever does in this final scene is switch from past tense to present. He switches back to the past tense for the final sentence, which in itself lends the story a required sense of finality, without actually seeming final.
Most of Cheever’s stories are around 3,000 words, but this one is shorter, clocking in at just over 2,000.
I’m reminded of the book Smile or Die! by Barbara Ehrenreich, who offers a critique of the attitude, expected in America, that outward joviality be expressed at all times. Ehreinreich argues that such attitudes contributed to the GFC of 2008.
People were always glad to see them, for, if they were the pathetic grasshoppers of some gorgeous economic summer, they somehow had it in their power to remind one of good things-good places, games, food, and company-and the ardor with which they looked for friends on railroad platforms could perhaps be accounted for by the fact that they were only looking for a world that they understood.