Today Is Mr. Cheever’s Birthday

May 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

John Cheever was once called “Ovid In Ossining.” What you have there are two references that may mean little or nothing to today’s reading audience, and so it goes with Cheever. He seems fixed in some awkward artistic purgatory, only in Cheever’s instance heaven and hell could be J.D. Salinger and John Updike. No one seems to know who Cheever is any more, or what he was talking about.

Salinger and Updike have staked out their territories quite clearly. Salinger was the voice of post-war New York and Updike trained his eye on a more fluorescent age. But they are most definitely realists. Given that Cheever is always lumped in with this small crowd, you open his books and very much expect him to be in that tradition, and he is not. He is the suburban surrealist, even though his topography appears quite real. So there is a vague notion of being disappointed when you finish a Cheever story, but only because you were told to expect the terrain to be related to Salinger and Updike. It’s not, though. It’s Cheever’s own vision.

Salinger also did something incredible with his art. He got out of its way. Salinger the man is a void, and so his personality impinges not one whit on his art. What you are left with are the stories.

With Cheever it is the opposite. Portraits written by his children, as well as the subsequent publication of his journals, show a breathtaking difference between the man and his prose. The difference is so spectacular, and the revelations are so fascinating (even though, in some instances, this is due to their sordidness), that Cheever’s writing almost strikes one as a fanciful pose, a facade. That’s a problem for a writer; you always want to think that the writing came from an honest place.

I think with Cheever it did, though. The writing was scrupulously honest. He was, page by page, word by word, story by story, trying to create a world he could understand. It’s like the process of the old aboriginal songlines — Cheever was singing his world into existence.

So, today, May, 27, John Cheever would have turned 98. With the death of Salinger earlier this year, the old New Yorker triumvirate is gone. Maybe this will finally give Cheever a little breathing room.

But gone only in flesh. John Cheever’s books are still happily in print. If you have a few minutes, celebrate his birthday — if not today, on another day — by reading some of his words. He’s a writer to be cherished, and we should be happy that he lived.


Goodbye To All That

January 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson
J.D. Salinger may have been the last post-war American writer left on the scene. Mailer is dead; Schulberg died last year. Styron is gone. Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams — gone, gone, gone. The roadside juke joint is closing and the last cigarette has been extinguished. You better drink down that rye, boy, and hit the road. Fast.
The soldier’s uniform, the one left over from The War, stopped fitting long ago, but it was kept in the closet for memory’s sake. But it may just be that no one wants it any more. We’ve got our own war to fight, don’t you know, and sentimentality is getting harder and harder to come by. We’re so connected today that we don’t get a chance to miss those people we knew a long time ago, even if we never liked them and never even talked about them. Can you believe that so-and-so friended you on Facebook?
Gatsby, who turned out all right in the end, had his garden defaced by a mild epithet after he had died, and Holden Caulfield, who admired old Gatsby, the old sport, was offended by the epithet he found at the Museum of Modern Art. Neither word would offend anybody today, and so the most famous literary figure from the post-World War I era and the most famous literary figure from the post-World War II era — linked by some petty scribble on a wall — are sinking under our self-imposed 15 minute rule.

And so it goes. Feeling bad about the death of a 91-year old man who created works of art that are still read two generations after they were created — and who also seemed to have lived the kind of life he wanted, despite the pain it may have caused — is not much cause for lament. I never met Salinger, and never had any desire to drive up to Cornish, NH — not far from where I live — to steal his underwear. What would I do? Get a glimpse of him and then gather everybody around and say, “You’ll never guess who’s briefs are these?” I couldn’t dine out on that anecdote for very long. And besides, it’s sick.
What mattered to me was the work — in the same way that my own work matters to me. Hemingway, God bless him, was the one who paved the way and would say, no matter what demon you faced or how many drinks you had, that work was the only thing that mattered. Salinger was a lovely, beautiful writer. He created characters, and he detailed life in front of the radio. I liked the world he wrote about, and I probably liked that world because he rendered it so movingly. I like going back to it when I can. He is distinctly American, and I love that, and he writes dialogue the way I hear people speak and he always — always — put exactly the right word in italics.
Old Holden, though, soon enough — soon, I suspect — will be perceived to be about as relevant as an elevator operator or a cigarette girl. Which is too bad, because I love the idea of both, and I, truth be told, adore Holden. As I do Seymour, and Franny and Zooey, and Phoebe, and almost always most specially do I love Allie, Holden’s brother Allie, who had someone to speak for him even after he died, which is the greatest thing. I remember these people, and I guess it says something that their creator never got in their way. 

So I thank J.D. Salinger for taking the time to sit down in front of the typewriter and working through words and sentences and paragraphs to come up with a work of art that he thought people would like. It seems quaint, this idea that hard work and craft and training would be the path to fame and fortune. Once you had to refine your craft at the little cabin on 9W in Nyack so that you could learn how to sing. But that mic was shut off long ago. The old letters are crumbling, the sheet music is unintelligible. Those books that Uncle Harry left in the attic can’t even be sold at the yard sale.

It’s too bad about America sometimes. We can’t stand anything old unless we can sell it for money. 
Or, as Snooki would say, “Holden-fucking-who?”

John Updike

January 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson
A good writer will always help you out.
Whether you’re feeling blue, or ebullient, or confused — or simply want something articulated — there is always someone, somewhere who has said it just the way you would like it to be said.
And then you can feel slightly relieved.
And so it was when I read John Updike’s non-fiction. Whether it was in The New York Review of Books, or in The New Yorker, I knew that when I read an essay about even the most obscure (to me) painter, writer, sculptor or poet, Updike would be able to sum up the artist for me in relatively short order, and in such a way that would either make me seek out the subject’s art, or avoid it.

This may strike someone as snobbism on Updike’s part, or gullibility on my side, but we all need a guide. But, still, the essays themselves were always clear and beautifully turned. He was an education for me all in his own right.
His fiction just wasn’t my thing — but that isn’t a put-down. It was a shining light for many people, over a long period of time, and there are only a very few writers with his output, stamina, and public acceptance.
I was a little shocked when I read he had died. He always struck me as one of the lean, patrician New England types who effortlessly lives to be 93 — even though New England was his adopted home. But even so.
Like so many other people, I had drawn a clear line of succession from J.D. Salinger, John Cheever and John Updike — this may not be as clear cut as it seems, but it always seemed a noble lineage. Now Salinger, in his resilient quietness, is the only one left.
So I was wondering what I could say about Updike and his world, and his art, and I remembered something that John Cheever had said in the introduction to his own short story collection, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978.
“These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was filled with river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat,” Cheever wrote.
Updike isn’t as dated as all that — but he seems to me part of that tradition. Cheever then relates an anecdote that reflects the glittering imagery and sensuality that were staples of Updike: “It was under the canopy of a Fifty-ninth street apartment house that I wrote, aloud, the closing of ‘Goodbye, My Brother’’ ‘Oh, what can you do with a man like that?” I asked, and closed by saying ‘I watched the naked women walk out to the sea!’
‘You’re talking to yourself, Mr. Cheever,’ the doorman said politely, and he, too — correct, friendly, and content with his ten-dollar tip at Christmas — seems a figure from the enduring past.’
Ah, yes. A good writer will always, always help you out.
Here is a site that is full of links to essays, interviews and reviews of John Updike’s work:

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