The latest entry in my attempt to read a piece by every author who ever lived!
This week I’ve decided to look at the author, John Cheever, someone who has a lot in common with the previous author in this series, Raymond Chandler. Indeed, at one time, I always mixed up the two. (Actually, to tell the truth, long before I’d heard of Cheever, I used to mix up Raymond Carver with Raymond Chandler, which in hindsight, was probably a book well worth reading: What We Talk About When We Talk About The Big Sleep.)
Carver and Cheever actually had a lot in common, not least of which being that they were RAGING alcoholics. This is not to suggest that Carver and Cheever were the ONLY alcoholic writers, obviously, but they were two of its foremost practitioners. Thankfully, as I’ve discovered, drinking wasn’t all they were good at.
Their writing styles also have a lot in common. Of the two stories I read by them, there is a direct style with sparse language. The two men also taught together one semester at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, although as Carver tells it, teaching was not their first priority.
“When we were teaching in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall semester of 1973, he and I did nothing but drink. I mean we met our classes, in a manner of speaking. But the entire time we were there – we were living in this hotel they have on campus, the Iowa House – I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters. We made trips to a liquor store twice a week in my car.”
Taken from a 1983 interview in Paris Review
Cheever also sounds like quite the character. At one time, while living with his wife and children in Manhattan, he spent five years getting dressed in the morning in his only suit, taking the elevator to a maid’s room in the basement, stripping to his boxer shorts and writing until lunchtime!
The Cheever story that I read – “The Swimmer” – is probably his most famous. I chose this story because I was vaguely familiar with it from the movie, starring Burt Lancaster. I remember seeing it many moons ago and I’ve always been intrigued by the premise. Said premise is that Neddy Merrill – an atypical suburbanite – is at a Sunday afternoon pool party when he decides to make the eight mile trek home to his house – by swimming through all of his neighbour’s swimming pools. As the character does so, Cheever slowly pulls back the layers to show the darkness at the heart of seemingly idyllic 60s suburbia.
There’s a similarity between the two writer’s styles, a sparseness there. A scarcity of inner monologue that leaves the reader to make up their own mind about how the characters feel. Indeed, while Carver’s story comes to a conclusion of sorts (albeit a not very happy one) the ending of “The Swimmer” is very ambiguous and could be read a number of ways.
Cheever – like Carver – eventually quit drinking, although his sobriety was short-lived. He died of cancer six years later.
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