Paint me John Cheever, then, leaning happily out of a window of suite 501-3 at the Plaza Hotel. It is a parkview suite. It is autumn in New York.
"I've never...this is the first time I've ever had a view of the park, you know, the first time," Cheever says in a quick, hard, delicate Boston mutter.
From this vantage it is wonderfully Cheeverian -- a wilderness of treetops guarded on either side by the buildings of Fifth Avenue and Central Park West, dwindling northward to some vanishing point in Westchester. They are ancient and sunlit. This may be the last hot day of the year and the city seems full of melancholy eagerness -- an old man with a boutonniere, a woman with a briefcase and a broken heel, hurrying along 59th Street as if retracing steps for something they'd forgotten.
"I can watch all the faces, their expressions, it's wonderful," Cheever says, leaning out even further, his face dancing with a proprietary delight.
They are his people, after all, striving and powerful and poignant, the upper-middle class as rendered in his scores of short stories and four novels, renderings which have won a Pulitzer prize, two National Book Awards, an honorary degree from Harvard, his face on the cover of Time and Newsweek.
But at 67, from this height, can he actually read the faces?
"Oh yes, of course," he says, frowning at the question. Over a blue button-down shirt with one collar point unbuttoned, he has adamant Delft-blue eyes that seem lashless. They move like muscles capable of kneading all of it -- the sunlit buildings, the boutonniere, into a New Yorker short story.
Exactly so. And now three of them, "The Sorrows of Gin." "O Youth and Beauty!" and "The Five-Forty-Eight," have been made into hour-long dramas for public television. For all that, Cheever said a year ago: 'you can't adapt a story any more than you can adapt a baseball game. There it is."
Now he walks back from the window, a short man with a nervous, rolling gait, and sits on the couch to say yes, that's still true but "it's like rescoring something for orchestra. Everything has to be changed, but I'm tremendously impressed with them. All the performances were uncommonly good." (Two featured players are Michael Murphy, of "Manhattan" and "An Unmarried Woman," and Sigourney Weaver,of "Alien.")
"I told them, 'For God's sake, my dialogue was written to be spoken inside a reader's head, not aloud, so don't feel obliged to stick to it,' and they didn't. But why people adapt things, I'll never understand."
His delight in the whole project peaks now in a giddy pout over which he flashes those blue eyes, as if to say that something sublime and ridiculous is being shared.
Cheever is a grand old man of American letters now, leathery and dignified in magazine photographs which totally miss his boyishness, a droll giddiness of grimaces and eyebrows rising gently as dirigibles.
It might never have happened had he not been thrown out of his New England prep school, Thayer Academy (Cheever is a Bostonian) for smoking, at 16, thus losing his chance at Harvard, a profession, the class of WASP Americans for whom there are no tragedies, only preposterous accidents of infidelity or stock market disasters or alcoholism.
Instead, Cheever wrote a short story titled "Expelled" and published it in The New Republic. Except for a stint as an enlisted man in World War II, he's worked at nothing but writing ever since, first in Manhattan, where his rented room on Hudson Street was preserved in a photograph by Walker Evans. With his wife, Mary Winternitz, whom he married in 1941, and the first two of their three children, he moved to the suburbs in 1951. Six years later he published his first novel, "The Wapshot Chronicle," which won the National Book Award. His much-acclaimed novel "Falconer" was followed by the collected stories in 1978, which won both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer prize.
Most of his stories are set either in Manhattan, or in Italy, where he vacations, or -- the bulk of them -- in rich suburbs along the Hudson River.
They are often stern morality tales burnished by the Eden-ache nostalgia that is the luster on his prose, a sense of places where "things go glimmering," as Fitzgerald once wrote, of final, static, Platonic perfections through which his characters wander unknowing and lost.
"Paint me a small railroad station then, ten minutes before dark. Beyond the platform are the waters of the Wekonsett River, reflecting a somber afterglow," he begins his 1969 novel, "Bullet Park."
Delicious. It's a feeling you carry with you after you close the book, like the grace of Cary Grant that informs your stride as you wander out of the movie theater.
"Nostalgia, nostalgis," Cheever is saying now, as he struggles to open a third bottle of Perrier water, on a tray behind the spider mums on the coffee table.
He doesn't like the word, wants to get rid of it.
"Ah! The Italians say 'noh-stahhhlgee-ah?!' Yes! And it's a good thing with them, not sad, not a suspect emotion. Oh, no. They say: 'He has the noh-stahl-geee-ah!' And it's good!"
But the question, here, is just how central that nostalgia feeling is to the stories. Because the television dramas, which will air beginning Oct. 24, fail to capture it in their rescoring of the originals.
"Well, you see I haven't reread the stories since I wrote them, so I can't judge, I suppose. I never reread anything I write, once it's finished. Somebody gave me a new edition of 'The Wapshot Chronicle' and 'The Wapshot Scandal' to read on the local coming down here from Ossining an exurb where he lives in a 1799 Dutch Colonial house. I sat down, opened it, read one paragraph and closed it. I couldn't . . . it was too . . . it was like looking in the mirror, appalling narcissism."
That, however, does not answer the question about this central spirit, this ghost, in Cheever's work. Cheever appears to be merrily dodging it, as he pops open bottles and pours out the Perrier with the intensity of a man for whom the physical world is always a negotiation, a compromise.
The Perrier is especially important because he has quit both smoking ("I'm still not sure literature is possible without tobacco.") and drinking. The struggle with alcohol was won after a collapse in 1973 that left fellow New Yorker writer John Updike quoted as saying: "I keep thinking the John Cheever I know is in there someplace."
Anyhow, in the face of Cheever's denials and evasions, a passage is read aloud to him, here in the waning October light of the Plaza suite. It is a passage from one of the stories recorded for television, "O Youth and Beauty!" How can pictures capture the feeling of:
"Then it is a summer night, a wonderful summer night. The passengers on the eight-fifteen see Shady Hill -- if they notice it at all -- in a bath of placid golden light. The noise of the train is muffled in the heavy foliage, and the long car windows look like a string of lighted aquarium tanks before they flicker out of sight. Up on the hill, the ladies say to one another 'Smell the grass! Smell the trees!' The Farquarsons are giving another party, and Harry has hung a sign, WHISKEY GULCH, from the rose arbor, and is wearing a chef's white hat and an apron. His quests are still drinking and the smoke from his meat fire rises, on this windless evening, straight up into the trees."
Cheever listens, ponders. "That's a wonderful paragraph," he says.
But this feeling, what is this feeling . . . is it glamor that he imparts to the most quotidian of backyard cookouts?
Mmmmmm, bad word, this "glamor."
"If you come from Boston, as I do, glamor means 'artificialty.' Don't you think? It is not a virtue."
But surely he knows that he's doing it. When his characters lose their ability to perceive this glamor, this feeling, this nostalgia, "the terrible beauty and pain of the world," as Cheever keeps saying on this afternoon . . . when they lose it, as they often do, it is a gritty, protracted agony, like a series of awful operations for a cancer you know will not abate.
In "The Swimmer," for instance, Neddy Merrill, on a lark, decides to travel from a friend's house to his home via all the swimming pools along the way. His destruction is first signaled with the most innocent, but plaintive of harbingers: "A train whistle blew and he wondered what time it had gotten to be. Four? Five? He thought of the provincial station at that hour, where a waiter, his tuxedo concealed by a raincoat, a dwarf with some flowers wrapped in a newspaper, and a woman who had been crying would be waiting for the local. It was suddenly growing dark . . ."
And darker. In one afternoon, the man's life falls apart in his mini-odyssey. He is snubbed, insulted, forlorn, exhausted and totally alone by the time he arrives home.
"There are whole areas of Boston I can't go into, even today," Cheever says of his original home. He denies that it still stands as home for him, arguing with unpersuaded sallies about "home is where one's lover is, don't you think?" and statements about his wife and home in Ossining, where he has raised three children, now grown.
He went back to Boston the year of his crash into complete alcoholism. He taught at Boston University. "I behaved very badly," he says. But it was hard being there, too.
"Symphony Hall, I can't go near there."
His hands fly with frustration.
"My mother used to go there," he says. "She would walk up to the ticket-taker. The ticket-taker would ask her for her tickets. She never had them. She was a subscriber of course, but she never brought the tickets. She would say, "Young man, I am Mrs. Franklin Lincoln Cheever. My seats are numbers 14 and 15 . . . '"
He looks up, wanly hopeful that this anecdote explains something about home, and the past and nostalgia.
Is it possible, then, that with themes of nostalgia, glamor, and home exhausted as explanations of the Cheeverian world view, that it might very well be a particularly New England aesthetic, the sense of beauty developed by a people whose Puritan forebears had to teach themselves an Eden of terrifying beauty, in order to revel in their shame at forsaking it? After all, it's a theme that dominates so much American literature -- the sun-dappled forest in "The Scarlet Letter," the purity of Hemingway's "Big Two Hearted River," Thomas Wolfe mourning: "Oh lost, and by the wind grieved . . . "
"It's my sense of being alive," Cheever insists.
But other people don't see the world this way.
"I like to think they do," he says. "We have all seen splendor in some form or other."
It is suggested, finally, that sometimes a good drink will stimulate the same sense that Cheever does of the world being full of meaning which never needs to be spoken, a glow of certainty.
At this, Cheever's eyes go very hard with appetite, and a long smile stretches out: "Oh yes indeed, lovely, yes indeed. Alcohol is a celebration, I always used to pour a little on the ground as a libation . . . "
In the long slant of the afternoon light, there are footprints shining in the deep blue pile of the rug. Cheever, is undaunted, unassailable in his patience with people who fret at not getting straight answers from him.
Suddenly, he takes matters, which is to say the reality in question, into his own hands.
"In a story I wrote called "A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear,' I wrote, at the end . . . oh I see, you've got it there.Here, let me see. Yes!"
Cheever reads aloud, throwing away words in the tone of someone running a finger down a column in the phone book, and finding only the wrong names. The situation in question is a writer dying in Venice, one of Cheever's favorite cities. The writer, named Royden Blake, is dying in the same bone-chilling squalor which is the fate of Neddy Merrill in "The Swimmer." Blake starts to read his last story aloud, an account of three winter travelers caught in a mountain pass railroad station in Europe.
"'Avalanche warnings had been posted earlier in the day . . . '" Cheever reads, pronouncing the following words as if they are an instruction:
"'Then he (the writer, Royden Blake) put his head back on the pillow and died -- indeed, these were his dying words, and the dying words, it seemed to me, of generations of story-tellers, for how could this snowy and trumped-up pass, with its trio of travelers, hope to celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream?"
Cheever closes the book, and hands it back to the owner.
"I love that," he says. And then, after a moment: "Would you like me to autograph your book?"