‘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.

‘The Five-Forty-Eight’ by John Cheever

The title refers to the commuter train from a gray and grimy New York to the sanctuary of the Westchester suburbs where the main character, Blake, resides (and torments his wife and son, we learn.) On this journey Blake will meet vengeance in the form of the pistol-wielding Miss Dent, an emotionally unstable former secretary of his who he has slept with and discarded. The narration sticks with Blake and reserves judgment, which serves to make his point of view all the more poisonous. The story ends with his face in the dirt, but it’s more than an easy tale of comeuppance, of justice served. Even as Blake seems to stand on the precipice of death, there are moments of strange transcendence, as when Miss Dent forces him off the train and onto the platform, and the surrounding commuters are oblivious to his plight, enmeshed in their own lives: 

A few people got off from each of the other coaches; he recognized most of them, but none of them offered to give him a ride. They walked separately or in pairs—purposefully out of the rain to the shelter of the platform, where the car horns called to them. It was time to go home, time for a drink, time for love, time for supper, and he could see the lights on the hill—lights by which children were being bathed, meat cooked, dishes washed—shining in the rain. One by one, the cars picked up the heads of families, until there were only four left. Two of the stranded passengers drove off in the only taxi the village had. “I’m sorry, darling,” a woman said tenderly to her husband when she drove up a few minutes later. “All our clocks are slow.” The last man looked at his watch, looked at the rain, and then walked off into it, and Blake saw him go as if they had some reason to say goodbye—not as we say goodbye to friends after a party but as we say goodbye when we are faced with an inexorable and unwanted parting of the spirit and the heart. The man’s footsteps sounded as he crossed the parking lot to the sidewalk, and then they were lost. In the station, a telephone began to ring. The ringing was loud, plaintive, evenly spaced, and unanswered. Someone wanted to know about the next train to Albany, but Mr. Flannagan, the stationmaster, had gone home an hour ago. He had turned on all his lights before he went away. They burned in the empty waiting room. They burned, tin-shaded, at intervals up and down the platform, and with the peculiar sadness of dim and purposeless light.

First published in The New Yorker, April 10, 1954, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Stories of John Cheever, Vintage, 2000

‘Reunion’ by John Cheever, as read by Richard Ford on The New Yorker podcast

I love Ford’s reading of this; his tone is fittingly impassive and resigned, and yet you can hear the narrator’s enormous vulnerability. The story is about the car crash that is his father, crashing increasingly hard in the bars of New York. It’s funny throughout and desolating afterwards…

“Kellner! Garçon! Cameriere! You!”

First published in The New Yorker, October 1962, and collected in The Stories of John Cheever, Knopf, 1978

‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever

Neddy Merrill decides one lazy fine Sunday to swim back to his home through all the swimming pools in the county. A funny idea. Almost a gimmick. But as Neddy gets home, summer has passed, the leaves have fallen, and Neddy’s confidence and youthfulness are gone and the gimmick has worn away. In darkness, he reaches his completely empty and abandoned house. That’s always what I remember first about ‘The Swimmer’. The darkness. As I’m reading it again, I get the sense of what is happening to Neddy, but I know I’ll lose the story’s meaning again. I can’t explain why. The story of Neddy Merrill’s emotional and financial downfall makes sense but the story slips away for me every time.

First published in The New Yorker, 1964, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, Harper & Row, 1964, and The Stories of John Cheever, Alfred A. Knopf, 1978; now Collected Stories, Vintage Classics, 2010

‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever

In the space of an hour, more or less, he had covered a distance that made his return impossible.

Published in the same year as Ballard’s ‘The Terminal Beach’, ‘The Swimmer’ is a very different kind of story, although we might say that both are dreams about sorts of endings. Cheever’s premise is in many ways as strange as Ballard’s, but instead of roaming through a post-nuclear wasteland, his protagonist Neddy Merrill leaves a boozy Sunday afternoon party in well-heeled suburbia to “swim home” by connecting all the pools in the gardens of various friends and acquaintances; “that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.”

Beginning vigorously, joyfully, in the golden glow of midsummer, amongst flowering apple trees, Ned’s dreamlike journey quickly becomes freighted with an “unseasonable melancholy”. As he progresses, he is snubbed and his integrity is questioned and the weather seems to cycle through the seasons: leaves lie upon the ground, the air begins to chill, and one of the last pools he swims has a “wintry gleam”. His strength is fading too. At the beginning of the story, we learn that he has an “inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools.” Yet, at the end, in his own neighbours’ garden, “for the first time in his life, he did not dive but went down the steps into the icy water and swam a hobbled sidestroke that he might have learned as a child.” What has happened? Ned, or time itself, has become unmoored. Finally, he arrives at his house to find it locked up and empty. There is a kind of perfection to the way Cheever achieves all this. His glistening prose seems absolutely effortless. 

First published in The New Yorker, 1964, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, Harper & Row, 1964, and The Stories of John Cheever, Alfred A. Knopf, 1978

‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever

Middle Age…

He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one…

We meet Ned Merrell – the protagonist of Cheever’s most famous short story – one summer Sunday afternoon at a poolside, amongst friends. And although Ned is never specifically aged, we are not only told that he “seemed to have the special slenderness of youth” but also that he is “far from young.” This discrepancy between appearance and reality lies at the heart of this story (and given what we come to learn about Ned’s situation in life, it is safe to assume that he is deep into middle-age). Indeed, Ned Merrell, with his habit of repressing “unpleasant facts” could be a distant relative to ‘Bliss’s’ Bertha Young. Even the imagery used by Mansfield and Cheever to describe their respective protagonists is strikingly similar: Bertha is described as feeling “as though [she’d] suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in [her] bosom”; while Ned is described “as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure.” However, it is important to note that both these descriptions come from the beginnings of their stories, and Ned, like Bertha, is in for a rude awakening as he attempts to swim his way home via the pools of his neighbours. And while one nurtures a vain hope at the end of ‘Bliss’ that the thirty-year-old Bertha might still be able to salvage something from her life and start again, crucially, Ned seems far older than Bertha, and subsequently the stakes seem far higher. And by the time the one has finished reading ‘The Swimmer’ it is quite clear that Ned is finished too. 

First published in The New Yorker, 1964, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, Harper & Row, 1964, and The Stories of John Cheever, Alfred A. Knopf, 1978

‘The Seaside Houses’ by John Cheever

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

‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever

Neddy Merrill lounges with his wife and friends beside a swimming pool, a golden creature, no longer young but slender and handsome. “He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one.” In a fit of whimsy, Neddy decides that he will make his way home by swimming through all the pools in the county. His journey begins in a spirit of delight. People welcome him. But gradually the tone grows more sombre. The Welchers’ house is for sale and the pool is empty. The Sachses say they have given up drinking since Eric’s operation. When Neddy gets to the Hallorans they say that they’re sorry for all his “misfortunes”. The Biswangers are having a party but they snub him and the bartender is rude. Neddy starts to feel cold. There are autumn leaves on the ground. When at last he gets to his own house it’s dark and locked and the rooms are empty. He has swum to the end of the river of life. Cheever planned this as a novel and had carrier bags full of notes on each of the households but in the end he boiled it down to this single glorious sweep of a short story. 

First published in the New Yorker, July 18, 1964. Print version here. Collected in The Stories of John Cheever, Knopf 1978, various UK editions including Vintage 1990. Listen to Cheever himself read (rather haltingly) here or Anne Enright here

‘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