For John Cheever, all gall is divided into three parts. Geographically, the world is the cultural East Coast of America; Cleveland, Ohio; or Europe. Emotionally, his characters are unhappily married, separated, or divorced. Economically, they are lower-middle class, middle-middle class, or upper-middle class. The Stories of John Cheever aim at ordering life’s joys into 61 neat, analytical and specious bundles.
‘The Geometry of Love’ is a representative story with an emblematic title. Charlie Mallory, like most of Cheever’s men, is a moderately successful businessman, working in New York and commuting to his suburban nest. It’s a slow day at the office, so he shops for a screwdriver to mend his filing cabinet.
It was one of those rainy late afternoons when the toy department of Woolworth’s on Fifth Ave is full of women who appear to have been taken in adultery and who are now shopping for a present to carry home to their youngest child.
To his moderate surprise, a fur coat he recognizes is attached to his wife, Mathilda. He greets her, she turns and accuses him of spying, threatens to call the police, pays for a wooden duck, and storms out. Back in his office, Mallory is stunned. ‘It was not that he had lost his sense of reality but that the reality he observed had lost its fitness and symmetry.’ He gazes out the window and spots a small truck advertising euclid’s dry cleaning & dyeing. A Cheeverish thought strikes him:
‘What he needed was a new form of ratiocination, and Euclid might do. If he could make a geometric analysis of his problems, mightn’t he solve them, or at least create an atmosphere of solution.’
So, slide rule in hand, poor Mallory plunges on, with the optimistic desperation of a man arranging his empty martini glasses at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station.
And cataloguing comes easily to the reader of Cheever. His are the comfortable people: the established families from the right side of Boston; the successful businessmen from the best suburbs or the proper part of the City – New York has only an East Side. They vacation on Cape Cod, do business in Cleveland, and separate to Rome or Turino. These are the people you’d love to trap in some pigeonhole and then kick in their teeth – if they weren’t already involved in self-imposed root canal work. This is not to say that Cheever’s people are self-deprecating or that Cheever damns them simply because they have 43% fewer cavities than the rest of mankind. He neither curses the apple nor paints the worm. He is excellently moderate. His people find only half the worm.
Take Johnny Hake, from ‘The Housebreaker of Shady Hill’. Let him take himself:
We have a nice house with a garden and a place outside for cooking meat, and on summer nights, sitting there with the kids and looking into the front of Christina’s dress as she bends over to salt the steaks or just gazing at the lights in heaven, I am as thrilled as I am thrilled by more hardy and dangerous pursuits, and I guess this is what is meant by the pain and sweetness of life.
‘Nice’ damns him before we get a glimpse of cleavage. But there’s something about his simple thrilling that endears him to us beyond the banal things that thrill him. Like Albee’s New York executive, he is ‘possessed with a truly enviable innocence’. Yet this innocence in the face of financial disaster, marital insecurity, and rampant middle-class values allows him merely to continue leading such a disastrously insecure banal life.
Cheever, for all his condemnation, prefers these sentimentalists. Abel is his reasoned candidate, but in his heart he knows Cain’s right. He often makes the job tough on himself by putting his anti-middle class message in the mouths of workers. Cheever’s writing of workers is real only in its comment on a middle-class view of workers. They are niched, kicked in the teeth, and fed rabbits:
The purchase would make that weekend the weekend when they had bought the rabbits and distinguish it from the weekend when they had transplanted the Christmas fern or the weekend when they had removed the dead juniper. They could put the rabbits into the old duck house, Virginia said, and when they went back to the city in the fall, Kasiak could eat them. Kasiak was the hired man. (‘The Country Farmer’)
Back in the city, Cheever’s doormen are hokey, his superintendents dull, and his elevator operators two-bit button pushers: their backdoor view is simplified and contrived; they are functions rather than people. Indeed, all Cheever’s message carriers are functions – disapproving brothers, malcontented wives, pompous college kids. The message that Cheever sends through the mouths of these undesirables is tempered not only by their lack of dimension but by their very undesirability, plus the feeling that Cheever doesn’t really see their message as a solution. He hopes for the neat garden, the lawn without crabgrass or brown spots. And he’s at his best and most depressing when he’s hopeful.
These are Cheever’s people. With cigarette holder tip hidden, yet firmly cheek-implanted he blesses them:
the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like ‘the Cleveland Chicken’, sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are.
The moonlighting cat-burglar, the potential rapist. These are the meek. These are they who shall inherit Cheever’s earth, or Uncle Perry’s 100 shares of Xerox – whichever comes first.