‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’ by John Cheever

Chosen by Trahearne Falvey

Like Dickens, John Cheever understood that Christmastime brings into focus the difference between the haves and have-nots, and at first this story seems to be a Carol-esque tale of employer generosity. Unlike Dickens, though, Cheever was a bitter alcoholic. His protagonist Charlie, an elevator operator and a hero to us all, sort-of-swindles his way into a multitude of roast dinners, and gets so messy-drunk at work he causes a rich woman to have a panic attack. In place of cheesy moralising, there are loads of martinis, lines like “I just scrambled myself some eggs and sat there and cried”, and a healthy dose of cynicism concerning the motives of philanthropists. 

Cheever’s a kind of elevator operator himself, continually pulling the floor away so that by the end we don’t really know where we are or what’s happened, only that the third Old-Fashioned was, perhaps, too much fun. Read while hungover on Boxing Day, with a Bloody Mary.

First published in The New Yorker, 24 December 1949, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Vintage Cheever: Collected Stories, 2010. * Trahearne Falvey is a writer and teacher in South London. His stories have won the Aurora Prize and the Short Fiction/University of Essex Prize, and his criticism has appeared in 3AM Magazine, Review31 and Lunate, among other places.

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