A particularly bedraggled and worn copy of The Stories of John Cheever has been sitting up on my bookshelf for years. The top half of the cloth jacket on its back is missing, the front bottom right corner is chewed off, the spine is stripped down to bare pages at the top, and black strings hang off various spots where the cover is torn. Although some of the stories go back as far as 1949, the book itself was published in 1978, so its seemingly ancient facade is not a product of time but of the low shelf on which it was placed, giving our late dog, Pepper, easy access.
The opening story is Cheever’s oldest, written when he was freshly discharged (honorably) from the army at the end of WWII. In his preface, he admits that he finds his earlier stories proof of his own immaturity and is embarrassed by this documentation, but he writes that the stories are redeemed for him by the memories of the people and places he knew when he wrote them.
One would assume that as a successful and revered writer, he no doubt saw his earlier works as lesser than his later ones, either in terms of skill or their literary value.
My reaction was that his writing was not lacking in any way, but that his narrator was immature, although he was certainly meant to be the sympathetic character in the story.
Every summer the Pommeroy family gathers at the beach house—the cold widowed matron who has strong opinions about everything and everyone, her two older sons with their wives and children, and her recently divorced daughter.
They all seem to come from the same mold except the youngest brother, Lawrence, who has been estranged from his mother for several years but has decided this summer to join the family at the beach house and bring his own wife and children. Everyone else is lively and clever whether they’re swimming or swilling martinis. The more practical Lawrence is portrayed as gloomy and judgemental.
When his mother has too much gin and talks about the improvements she’s planning for the house, Lawrence remarks that anyone who builds a house at the edge of a cliff on a sinking coastline is foolish and that living in one is dangerous. His mother tries to unsuccessfully steer the conversation toward the upcoming dance. When Lawrence warns that they could all be drowned if they stay in that house, his mother responds, “I can’t bear it” and fills her glass with more gin.
Okay, Lawrence may be a bit of a wet blanket, but the man has a point. The rest of the Pommeroys seem to be in a state of denial, never speaking of their dead father or the crumbling sea wall that protects the house from high water. Their life is playing high-stakes backgammon, preparing for boat-house dances, and going for a swim the moment a conversation turns too serious.
I may a pragmatist, but I see Lawrence as the sane one. However, as I continue reading, I begin to feel vaguely uncomfortable, suspecting that the young John Cheever wanted us as readers to relate to the older brothers, who drank cocktails, went boating, and went by nicknames like Chaddy.
So it surprised me when the narrator not only wallops his little brother in the back of the head after an argument, but upon seeing the blood flow from his head, wishes his brother were dead “and about to be buried, not buried but about to be buried, because [he] did not want to be denied ceremony and decorum in putting him away.”
When I finish the story, it occurs to me that perhaps Cheever has played a trick on me. By viewing Lawrence through his older brother’s eyes, the reader is led down a trail blazed by the seemingly reliable narrator who has this idea of who his brother is, and so we believe him.
But after the narrator walks away from his bleeding brother on the beach, he casually decides to go for a swim. Is this the moment that Cheever planned all along—a sudden revelation that we as readers have been duped by an unreliable narrator dressed in swim trunks rather than sheep’s clothing?
Was this the equivalent of a literary practical joke, penned by an admittedly immature writer?
No, I think in the end it’s just a story imitating life, where people are rarely villains or saints but somewhere in between. And isn’t each one of us at the core an unreliable narrator?