On an early autumn afternoon in the Plaza Hotel, in New York, John Cheever was kind enough to explain it all after an hour or two of being badgered and importuned by a reporter's questions.
Cheever died last night at 70 after a long illness and a career of putting into words a whole way of feeling about life, death and the world, especially his world, which was the Boston where he grew up, and then the Manhattan and New York suburbs where he lived, wrote and raised his family.
On that afternoon in 1979, with a slant of light shadowing the footprints in a rug of deep, blue pile, he took the reporter's copy of "The Collected Stories of John Cheever" . He muttered in his quick, hard, delicate Boston accent: "In a story I wrote called 'A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear' I wrote . . . " And then he read the ending of a story about a writer who is dying, and who is himself reading, as it happens, his own last story, an account of three winter travelers caught in a mountain pass railroad station in Europe.
Cheever slowed to pedagogic speed as his character's story ended, and read: "Then he 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 closed the book and said: "I love that."
Of course, he had bested his fictional author, by not only celebrating but creating that sense of world-as-dream with his writing.
He was a short man with a cautious grace about him. At one point in the conversation he leaned out the window of the suite and looked down at the pedestrians--it was probably the last hot day of the year and there was a melancholy eagerness about the city--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," he said.
He was asked if he could actually see them, from this considerable height.
"Oh yes, of course," he said. Over a blue button-down shirt with one collar point unbuttoned he had adamant Delft-blue eyes that seemed lashless. They moved like muscles capable of kneading all of it--the sun-lit buildings, the boutonniere--into a New Yorker short story, which was, even after all his novels, the form at which he excelled.
He had an oddly elfin presence that never came through in the magazine photographs that showed him looking leathery and venerable. There was a boyishness, a droll giddiness of grimaces and eyebrows rising as gently as dirigibles.
He was blithe and severe together in a way that New Englanders can be, a man clearly capable of describing the world with Eden-ache nostalgia and then peopling it with the most grueling of disappointments and failures.
He found beauty in that most banal of settings, the suburbs: "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 guests are still drinking and the smoke from his meat fire rises, on this windless evening, straight up into the trees."
Confronted with the nostalgia and glamor of this paragraph, that afternoon in the Plaza, Cheever insisted: "It's my sense of being alive."
When it was suggested that other people might not see the world that way, he said, firmly: "I like to think they do. We have all seen splendor in some form or other."
He denied the glamor, and defended the nostalgia.
"Mmmmmmmmm, bad word, this glamor," he said. "If you come from Boston, as I do, glamor means 'artificiality.' Don't you think? It is not a virtue."
And as for the nostalgia, he could create it in a moment--could create that sensation that it might be possible to live feeling nostalgia for the present, an infatuation with everything the eye might see.
"Paint me a small railroad station then, ten minutes before dark."
That's the first line of his novel "Bullet Park," published in 1969.
"Nostalgia, nostalgia," Cheever ruminated, as he struggled to open a third bottle of Perrier water on a tray behind the spider mums on the coffee table. He moved with the intensity of a man for whom the physical world seemed a negotiation, a compromise.
"Ah! The Italians say 'noh-stahhhl-geee-ah!' 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!"
Then again, he never looked back on his own writing. Once, riding on the train down from his Dutch colonial house in Ossining, N.Y., he said he had tried reading one of his own books. "I couldn't . . . it was too . . . it was like looking in the mirror, appalling narcissism."
That might have been a key to the particular genius he possessed--a capacity for nostalgia without self-pity. In fact, for all its lambency, the world he described could be cruel, relentless, capricious and vengeful--his stories were full of Jobs, puzzling at their downfalls. And Cheever could evoke that sense of downfall out of next-to-nothing, out of the constant and terrible rubbing together of life and death.
He had the odd knack of putting portents and poignance together. In his great story "The Swimmer," about the life of a middle-aged man falling into ruins in one afternoon, we sense the oncoming doom: "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 . . ."
In a story entitled "The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well," he told of the Nudds, who own a summer place on a lake in the Adirondacks. By the end of the story, the children are grown, and the family is sitting on the porch. It's a time of day and season when they tend to reminisce on a day when a pig fell into their well--it's an old family story.
"That late in the season, the light went quickly. It was sunny one minute and dark the next. Macabit (the closest town) and its mountain range were canted against the afterglow, and for a while it seemed unimaginable that anything could lie beyond the mountains, that this was not the end of the world. The wall of pure and brassy light seemed to beat up from infinity. Then then the stars came out, the earth rumbled downward, the illusion of an abyss was lost. Mrs. Nudd looked around her, and the time and the place seemed strangely important. This is not an imitation, she thought, this is not the product of custom, this is the unique place, the unique air, where my children have spent the best of themselves. The realization that none of them had done well made her sink back in her chair. She squinted the tears out of her eyes. What had made the summer always an island, she thought; what had made it such a small island? What mistakes had they made? What had they done wrong? They had loved their neighbors, respected the force of modesty, held honor above gain. Then where had they lost their competence, their freedom, their greatness? Why should these good and gentle people who surrounded her seem like the figures in a tragedy?
" 'Remember the day the pig fell into the well?' she asked. The sky was discolored. Below the black mountains, the sky ran a rough and deadly gray."
It should have been no surprise that day when Cheever chose to explain himself with a story about a dying writer. All his work contained that sense of passing. He read that passage about the world spreading out around us "like a bewildering and stupendous dream" and a moment hung for a while. And then he offered a coda, brisk, cheerful, and trenchant: "Would you like me to autograph your book?"