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

An excellent test of a Christmas story is to read it out of season. It was a rare close and scorching British summer when I first read Cheever’s Collected Short Stories. In ‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’ Cheever opts to bludgeon his readers from the outset: “Christmas is a sad season”, “Christmas is a sad season for the poor”, “Christmas is a very sad day of the year”. As Christmas Day dawns upon a lavish New York apartment building, we are introduced to elevator operator, Charlie; a man on the margins of society trapped within the working confines of a gilded cage, within the confines of an elevator – “He held the narrowness of his travels against his passengers…as if they had clipped his wings”. Humour with a moral twist is best served gin-dry in Cheever stories; although there is a “loneliness” to our protagonist, there is also a balancing air of “petulance”. No one is above or below mockery and censure.

Charlie fabricates a lie: one that can – and should – be judged on a variety of levels by the reader. It is this lie that morphs from a comedy of manners into a strangely elevated (pun intended) chain reaction spreading far beyond the confines of the elevator shaft and class boundaries of the apartment block and onto the streets of New York. The affluent in the story are – on the surface – defined by their trappings, yet it is middle-man Charlie’s hubris – in the form of greed and an abundance of alcoholic Christmas cheer – that pinpoints the vital moment in the narrative arc as romp gives way to reality. Often it takes a dose of Christmas spirits to remember Christmas Spirit in Cheever Land; and it appears the longest journeys can be undergone in the ups and downs of a simple elevator. What is poverty? What are riches? Who is content? Who is alone? If these questions are only posed at Christmas, then it is indeed “a very sad day of the year”.

One sentence that sums up the underlying bittersweet mood of the story – and almost resonates louder than the title itself: “…and she knew that we are bound, one to another, in licentious benevolence for only a single day, and that day was nearly over.” With this Christmas short story, Cheever confirmed himself – to me, at the height of summer – as a writer for all seasons.

First published in The New Yorker, 24 December 1949, and available in Vintage Cheever: Collected Stories, 2010. Chosen by Jane Roberts

‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever

I could pretend that my favourite John Cheever story is not the one that everyone knows and about which a million undergraduate essays have been written and which was made into a film – but it would be pretending. In ‘The Swimmer’, Neddy Merrill sets out one hungover afternoon to swim home via the swimming pools of his wealthy neighbours and in doing so reveals not only the delusions and hollowness of his own life but of the entire American project – possibly. Not many stories have a genius idea or conceit at the centre of them, it’s more just a case of writing well. ‘The Swimmer’ has both. The obvious but beautiful ironic-mythic metaphor of Neddy’s journey is a triumph in itself. But then Cheever wrote hundreds of pages and condensed it into just 12 of the best prose ever written.

First published in The New Yorker (1964) and collected in The Stories of John Cheever