Friday, December 12, 2014

Peter LaSalle Considers John Cheever Across the River

In the 60th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Peter LaSalle, author of What I Found Out About Her (University of Notre Dame Press), recalls the time he almost met a literary idol.

Every short story writer surely has his or her pantheon of masters of the genre.

For me, there's Borges and Hemingway and Maupassant (trained by no less a mentor than Flaubert, and amazing to think how Maupassant could accomplish so much in such a small space—I personally say it's tough to find any writing in the entirety of world literature to match the sheer craft afoot in "The Necklace" or "Boule de Suif").

And there's also been—equally a favorite and the subject of what I have to tell here—John Cheever.

Like many aspiring writers fresh out of college, I was stuck in a job that had little to do with writing. True, I was supposedly working with words as a reporter for the Providence daily newspaper, but those words were far removed from what I really wanted to write. And what I really wanted to write, often my model early on, was fiction like that of John Cheever, his startling short stories. They were seemingly about lost city dwellers or lost suburbanites, while they also approached something much larger and airier than that. Intimate, rendered in a prose effortlessly lyrical, they moved toward valid transcendence in gems like "O Youth and Beauty!" and "Goodbye, My Brother." I read Cheever, I imitated him in stories I wrote when young, and I read him some more.

Which makes what did happen quite painful, I suppose, but important and even revelatory, too, an incident back in 1970 that has always stuck with me.

You see, good friends of mine from college in Boston were marrying in Albany, and a bunch of us in our old undergrad group drove or flew in from various parts of the country to attend the June wedding. Afterwards we planned to keep the impromptu reunion going for a while and spend a few days at the longtime family summer place of my college roommate at Thousand Islands there in upstate New York. It was seldom used now, so we would have the entire house to ourselves, a grand old operation from an elegant era long gone by, sprawling yet ramshackle and located on its very own island on the St. Lawrence River. With cars left on the mainland, our shuttling back and forth for groceries and such was done via a little white-and-blue Boston Whaler powered by a happily buzzing outboard motor. We weren't even a full year past graduation—guys and girls, swimming and enjoying the extended meals we slapped together in the antiquated kitchen, then talking late into the night.

One afternoon, the others set off in the Boston Whaler to bring some supplies from the mainland over to friends of my roommate's parents at a similar big summer house on a nearby island, but I took a pass on the idea. I guess I saw this little vacation from rushing out of the newsroom to cover yet another tangled car crash, let's say, as a time to rest up, free of the drudgery of newspaper work. Plus, I was maybe a bit hung over from too much Utica Club beer that accompanied all the good talk the night before, and I wanted to just relax that sunny, leafily brilliant June day, probably reading, certainly napping as well. When the contingent returned a few hours later, I met them at the dock. I asked how the afternoon had gone; a lovely girl named Sandra in her swimsuit there in the boat looked up from under a Red Sox cap and said they had fun visiting the friends of my roommate's parents, had even met a famous writer:

"John Carter, I think his name was," she said, "a nice man and a house guest there."

"Not Carter." My college roommate, tying up the boat, corrected her. "It's something like that, with a 'C,' and apparently a short story writer, named John . . ."

"Cheever?" I offered hesitatingly, and my roommate confirmed it.

Cheever: So close and yet so far
I seem to remember—or maybe simply picture—me lingering on the dock after the others, sunburned and noisy, headed up the slope of the shaggy lawn to the house, as I stood there alone, looking out over the shimmering blue water to the wooded island across the way and thinking still more, now with self-recrimination: "Man, I could have met John Cheever, and there I was, lazily sleeping away the afternoon."

Anyway, here's the jump I wish to make, to perhaps bring this all full circle. Yes, I felt disappointment then, but sometimes the scene also does come pleasantly back to mind lately whenever I look at a blank page and begin a new short story. There's always that possibility, a fresh chance, and maybe this time the words themselves will produce a rare story indeed, granting I'm never to be even vaguely included in that hallowed group of my short story masters, of course. And with the sentences accumulating, the narrative moving along almost like a buzzing Boston Whaler with its blunt, wave-splashing bow tirelessly cutting through the water, the story will take me to a place where I just might tap into at least a small measure of the magic that any of those heroes of mine so often and very beautifully tapped into.

All of which is to say, there's John Cheever beckoning across water, also Borges and Maupassant, even the mustached, dimpled, darkly handsome young Hemingway there.

The whole gang, writers who with others have made the genre the special entity it is, which, for better or worse, has led me to neglect trying to write the Great American Novel (though I've published a couple of hopefully reasonably decent ones) and devote what has passed for a pretty long literary career to what ultimately interests meah, the short story!