Saturday, March 14, 2009

Under a Cheever

I love John Cheever's stories and Flannery O'Connor's, too. But I have absolutely no interest in their biographies, which are racking up reviews in newspapers and magazines. I don't happen to care if J.C. was an alcoholic, abusive husband and father, abused child, closeted homosexual, etc., etc., etc. All I need to know is his work:
"Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming--Diana and Helen--and I saw their covered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched them walk out of the sea."
That's the concluding paragraph of Cheever's story "Goodbye, My Brother." Perhaps he did have a troubled relationship with his brother, as does the narrator, but that makes no difference to the reader; the story would be great even if the author had been an only child.

Of, course, I'm not saying no one should read or write biographies, just that they're not for me. The best thing about the books on Cheever and O'Connor is that they're likely to get more people to read their stories and novels. Let's give Cheever the final words, a passage from his novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems:
"He felt so lonely that when the car ahead of him signaled for an exit he felt as if he had been touched tenderly on the shoulder by some stranger in some strange place like an airport, and he wanted to put on his parking lights or signal back in some way as strangers who are traveling sometimes touch one another although they will never, ever meet again. In a lonely fantasy of nomadism he imagined a world where men and women communicated with each other mostly by signal lights and where he proposed marriage to some stranger because she put on her parking lights an hour before dusk, disclosing a supple and romantic nature."