Each year, we rent a house at the edge of the sea and drive there in the first of summer – with the dog and cat, the children, and the cook – arriving at a strange place a little before dark.
So begins John Cheever’s ‘The Seaside Houses’ – with a first sentence that is possible to be read as a distillation of the story to follow: the up-with-the-larks! buoyancy of that “in the first of summer” doesn’t even make it to the end of sentence, but, instead, is brought back down to earth with the gloomy image of the family’s arrival “at a strange place a little before dark.”
But this melancholic foreshadowing is easily overlooked on an initial read. For, rather than continue along this downward trajectory, the narrator is keen to return to the optimism he had momentarily (and perhaps unconsciously) allowed to slip, declaring himself ready to enjoy “a month that promises to have no worries of any kind” and that “there is the sense that we are, as in our dreams we have always known ourselves to be, migrants and wanderers – travelers, at least, with a traveler’s acuteness of feeling …”
Naturally, such a quasi-mythical outlook on life has its hubristic consequences. And having boasted of possessing an “acuteness of feeling” the narrator is immediately struck by the idea that the owners of the house “seemed to have left that day, seemed in fact to have left a minute earlier. There were flowers in the vases, cigarette butts in the ashtrays, and a dirty glass on the table…” He claims that “[t]he stir, the discord of the Greenwood’s sudden departure still seemed to be in the air” and is disappointed that “in the twilight the place seemed drab, and I found it depressing. I turned on a lamp, but the bulb was dim and I thought that Mr Greenwood had been a parsimonious and mean man. Whatever he had been, I seemed to feel his presence with uncommon force.”
As the holiday continues the narrator’s mood worsens: he becomes short tempered and quarrels with his wife and children. He discovers empty bottles of whiskey hidden behind books and inside the piano; a stash of nudist magazines under the cushions of the settee; a piece of graffiti (“My father is rat”) scrawled on the baseboard in his son’s bedroom; and when a visiting neighbour drops hints that Mr Greenwood’s marriage was troubled and that his actual achievements had fallen far short of his aspirations, the narrator invents an excuse to flee back to New York for a couple of days – where he promptly gets drunk in a bar and spends the night with a “sloppy woman” from his office. And when he returns to the house the situation just continues to deteriorate further.
There is an uncanny, dreamlike quality to Cheever’s prose – infusing the narrative with a wonderful ambiguity – so that the reader can never be sure if the sadness of someone’s life can be such that, even in their absence, it is able contaminate places and other people (especially those people possessed of an aforementioned “acuteness of feeling”); or whether this claim of possessing such preternatural sensitivity is merely an excuse for a fatal flaw the claimant is unable to recognise within themselves (as the narrator was oblivious to that quiet note of melancholy in the opening sentence). Cheever, of course, never shows his hand. Merely allows his subtle alchemy to work upon the text until a sublime reckoning has been reached and, once again, the golden glow of high summer has been transformed into the sad and leaden drabness of “another seaside house, with another wife”.
Picked by W.B. Gooderham. W.B. is a freelance writer. He blogs at http://livesinlit.com and http://bookdedications.co.uk/
First published in The New Yorker, July 29, 1961, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Stories of John Cheever, Knopf, 1978