‘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