John Cheever's 'Housebreaker,' Welcome as Ever

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Toward the end of his life John Cheever was festooned in honors. In 1977, his novel "Falconer" was extravagantly reviewed, got him onto the cover of Newsweek and made the bestseller lists. The next year "The Stories of John Cheever" won it all -- the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award -- and made the bestseller lists as well. At his death in 1982 at the age of 70, Cheever was by any definition an American literary lion.

As so often happens in American literary careers, all the huzzahs came to Cheever long after his best work had been done. "Falconer" seems to have been celebrated more because its treatment of bisexuality was considered daring at a time when closet doors were still only slightly ajar than because of its actual literary merit, which in fact is small, especially by comparison with his two earlier novels, "The Wapshot Chronicle" (1957) and "The Wapshot Scandal" (1964). His omnium-gatherum story collection is an essential monument of American literature, but because it includes stories Cheever wrote late in his career for Playboy, it reminds us that in those final years, he succumbed to some of the temptations of let-it-all-hang-out trendiness, and brought little credit on himself in the process.

Instead, for an accurate understanding of Cheever's genius one must turn to the work of his mid-career, the 1950s, when -- in addition to the Wapshot novels -- he wrote a succession of short stories, most of them published in the New Yorker, that have rivals but no superiors in the national literature. The 1950s, so widely misunderstood and so stupidly maligned, were the Golden Age of the American short story, and the New Yorker was the cornucopia from which many of its riches flowed. Though many gifted writers wrote memorably during that decade, four stood apart: Flannery O'Connor, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty and John Cheever. Their individual and collective achievements are almost too grand to describe.

Doubtless many of Cheever's admirers will insist that the best of his story collections appeared in the next decade: "The Brigadier and the Golf Widow" (1964), which includes his most famous short story, "The Swimmer." That is indeed a fine book, but then so too are "The Way Some People Live" (1942),"The Enormous Radio and Other Stories" (1953), "Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel" (1961) and "The World of Apples" (1973). My own favorite is "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" (1959), because the cumulative effect of its eight stories is both powerful and sublime and because it includes "The Country Husband," Cheever's masterpiece.

Like so many of the other books that have been discussed in this series, my copy of "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" is a tattered paperback, this one published in 1961 by the long-departed firm of Hillman/MacFadden. It may well have come to me through my parents, who were passionate admirers of stories and novels of social manners and who instilled that passion in me. Though there is far more to Cheever than manners, that aspect of his work -- the clinical, sardonic yet sympathetic depiction of life in leafy suburbia -- first drew me to it and remains, for me, one of its greatest attractions.

Cheever himself lived a suburban life, though he was more observer of than participant in suburbia's cozy, charged rituals. Born in 1912 in Massachusetts into an old New England family, he suffered lasting pain when his father left his mother after his business was destroyed by the stock market calamity of 1929. He began a literary career in the 1930s, served in the Army in World War II, then resumed that career at war's end. He married, had children, acknowledged convention but resisted it; he was eaten away by alcohol and late in life accepted (and practiced) his bisexuality. In his journals (published in 1991) he described his desire "to write well, to write passionately, to be less inhibited, to be warmer," and:

"To disguise nothing, to conceal nothing, to write about those things that are closest to our pain, our happiness; to write about my sexual clumsiness, the agonies of Tantalus, the depth of my discouragement -- I seem to glimpse it in my dreams -- my despair. To write about the foolish agonies of anxiety, the refreshment of our strength when these are ended: to write about our painful search for self, jeopardized by a stranger in the post office, a half-seen face in a train window; to write about the continents and populations of our dreams, about love and death, good and evil, the end of the world."

A tall order that, and to an extraordinary degree Cheever filled it, never more so than in these eight stories. All of them -- "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," "O Youth and Beauty!," "The Country Husband," "The Sorrows of Gin," "The Worm in the Apple," "The Five-Forty-Eight," "Just Tell Me Who It Was" and "The Trouble of Marcie Flint" -- are set in Shady Hill, where everybody has "a nice house with a garden and a place outside for cooking meat," and where "there was no turpitude; there had not been a divorce since he lived there; there had not even been a breath of scandal."

The second of those quotations comes from "The Country Husband" (the first is from the title story) and describes the thoughts of Francis Weed as he contemplates the possibility of turpitude and then some: a love affair with his children's teen-age babysitter. She has arrived unknown to him -- he had expected "to see Mrs. Henlein, the old lady who usually stayed with the children" -- and immediately she leaves him breathless: ". . . he experienced in his consciousness that moment when music breaks glass, and felt a pang of recognition as strange, deep, and wonderful as anything in his life."

He loves his wife and children, but when as he drives the sitter home she confesses her unhappiness with her father, he puts his arms around her, lets her cry on his shoulder and is kissed "swiftly" by her at the steps of her house. The next morning "even the smell of ink from his morning paper honed his appetite for life, and the world that was spread out around him was plainly a paradise." Yes, "the autumnal loves of middle age are well publicized, and he guessed that he was face to face with one of these, but there was not a trace of autumn in what he felt. He wanted to sport in the green woods, scratch where he itched, and drink from the same cup."

All the forgotten emotions of new love descend on him: "He would be spared nothing, then, it seemed, that a fool was not spared: ravening lewdness, jealousy, this hurt to his feelings that put tears in his eyes, even scorn -- for he could see clearly the image he now presented, his arms spread over the steering wheel and his head buried in them for love." He discovers that the babysitter is engaged to a dreamy young man -- "lazy, irresponsible, affected, and smelly," Francis calls him -- and does something almost unimaginably cruel to the boy. He acknowledges his "wickedness" and realizes that "he had reached the point where he would have to make a choice." He makes it, and the abyss is skirted. At the end he is fashioning a coffee table in the basement of his house as the parade of suburbia marches past. Last is a neighbor's dog: "He prances through the tomato vines, holding in his generous mouth the remains of an evening slipper. Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over mountains."

It is close to a perfect short story. In the brief space of perhaps 10,000 words Cheever creates characters whom we see in full; he portrays the exterior and interior lives of Francis Weed with astonishing complexity and subtlety; he gets the suburban ambiance exactly right; he depicts with heartbreaking accuracy the sudden onslaught of love and the tidal wave of emotions carried with it; he gives us a man in thrall to lust -- "It was his life, his boat, and, like every other man, he was made to be the father of thousands, and what harm could there be in a tryst that would make them both feel more kindly toward the world?" -- but who is faithful, in the end, to his own essential decency and moral sturdiness.

Though "The Country Husband" is unique, its themes and settings are shared by the other seven stories in this book and, for that matter, by just about everything else Cheever wrote. He summarized much of it quite beautifully in his brief preface to his collected stories:

"Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like 'the Cleveland Chicken,' sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are. The constants that I look for in this sometimes dated paraphernalia are a love of light and a determination to trace some moral chain of being. Calvin played no part at all in my religious education, but his presence seemed to abide in the barns of my childhood and to have left me with some undue bitterness."

Thus we have, in the title story, Johnny Hake concluding that "money had it all over love" and doing something terrible to get the money he needs -- "the moral bottom had dropped out of my world without changing a mote of sunlight" -- but being called "back from death" by "the lights and signs of love and friendship"; Cash Bentley, in "O Youth and Beauty!," at the mercy of "the unbeautiful facts of life"; little Amy Lawton, in "The Sorrows of Gin," who, lying in bed, "perceived vaguely the pitiful corruption of the adult world; how crude and frail it was, like a piece of worn burlap, patched with stupidities and mistakes, useless and ugly, and yet they never saw its worthlessness, and when you pointed it out to them, they were indignant."

Over and over Cheever's characters confront "the stupendous wickedness of the world," over and over they find their own measures of hope and redemption. They make mistakes, sometimes grievous ones, and "the full force of regret" eventually crashes in on most of them, yet they persevere. Cheever knew that ultimately this is the only course for all of us, and he found honorable, appealing things in our clumsy attempts to carry on. Living as they do in the suburbs, the people of Shady Hill tend to have quieter crises and epiphanies than do those in more dramatic settings, but they have them all the same. "Urged to build bomb shelters, they plant trees and roses, and their gardens are splendid and bright." That, as Cheever understood, is a good way to carry on.

"The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" is out of print, but all eight stories are in "The Stories of John Cheever" (Vintage paperback, $16.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

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