John Cheever and the fictional limits of realism

I read John Cheever’s short story, “The Sorrows of Gin”, as part of my English lit curriculum during my junior year of high school. Published in 1953, it struck me as a pretty good story when I read it thirty-one years later, in 1984.

At some point I decided to acquire a collection of John Cheever’s short stories. John Cheever, who lived from 1912 to 1982, wrote a lot of them. Most of Cheever’s stories were originally published in prestige outlets like The New Yorker.

An omnibus edition of Cheever’s short stories, The Stories of John Cheever, came out in 1978. I acquired my copy sometime early in the twenty-first century; but it remained in my TBR pile until just a few weeks ago. Almost 40 years after I first read “The Sorrows of Gin”.

John Cheever

I did not enjoy most of the stories in this book. They didn’t offend me. (That is difficult to do.) Nor was the sentence-by-sentence writing necessarily bad. To be blunt, I found the majority of these stories to be a tough slog.

The problem isn’t the age of the stories. John Cheever and I are not exactly contemporaries, but he was actively writing within my lifetime. Cheever was younger than both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two writers introduced to me in the same, aforementioned high school English class. I still enjoy rereading This Side of Paradise and The Old Man and the Sea from time to time.

For that matter, I recently read Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield all the way through for the first time. I was spellbound the entire time.

Dickens (1812-1870) died 98 years before I was born. Dickens and I are from different temporal planets. Dickens was also British, and I’m American. And yet, Dickens’s skill as a storyteller transcends those boundaries of time and culture. I suspect that readers will still be enjoying Dickens a hundred years from now.

My problem with Cheever is much more fundamental: we seem to disagree on what makes a good story. Cheever spent all of his life among the New England Brahmin class. He seems to have made this blue-blood environment his sole source for stories. This was a core element of Cheever’s brand, in fact.  During his lifetime, he was known as “the Chekhov of the suburbs”.

One can certainly find good stories in the suburbs without bringing in contrived plot devices like serial killers or mafiosos. (F. Scott Fitzgerald more than proved that.) But writing compelling stories about people preoccupied with what we now call “first-world problems” is difficult to do well.

And Cheever did not do it particularly well, at least in my reading. His stories plod along. It isn’t that nothing happens, but it takes a long time for something to happen, and you have to wade through too much repetitive dialogue to get there. And the something that happens usually isn’t all that surprising or revelatory.

I have this same difficulty with quite a few of the mid-twentieth-century authors who were already regarded as literary giants by the time I was old enough to read their books. Not only Cheever, but also Saul Bellow, Upton Sinclar, and others.

These authors clearly had no stomach for the speculative work of their contemporaries like H.P. Lovecraft or Ray Bradbury. Nor were they interested in crime fiction. They didn’t even people their fiction with daring, outlandish characters like the Great Gatsby or Amory Blaine. They just gave us ordinary people doing mostly ordinary things.

Realism was their overarching creed. Realism, when taken too far and too literally, degenerates into a verbatim transcript of real life. And when that happens, real life is more interesting. Why wouldn’t it be? And therefore, why even read stories at all? Why not just listen to the news, or to your neighbors’ gossip? At least then, you might have a personal stake in the ordinary happenings and goings-on.

That said, uncurated realism in fiction is occasionally interesting. I still like “The Sorrows of Gin”. I regretfully can’t say the same about the remaining bulk of John Cheever’s short stories.