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.

Two Poems: One by Updike, One By Silverstein

January 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Meager Commentary by L. Trodson

When I was in grammar school we had a textbook that probably contained the first introduction I ever had to John Updike.

When I was thinking of it last night, I couldn’t remember the name of the poem, in fact I could only remember one line of it. So I googled “updike super phosphate fed foods feed me” and up popped this, which was written in 1954. I first read it sometime before 1970:

Superman

I drive my car to supermarket,
The way I take is superhigh,
A superlot is where I park it,
And Super Suds are what I buy.

Supersalesman sell me tonic–
Super Tone-O, for Relief,
The planes I ride are supersonic,
In trains, I like the Super Chief.

Supercilious men and women
Call me superficial — me!
Who so superbly learned to swim in
Supercolossality.

Superphosphate-fed foods feed me;
Superservice keeps me new.
Who would dare to supersede me,
Super-super-superwho?

And then I vaguely remembered another poem that was in the same textbook, so I typed in the lines “put some mustard in your shoe/drive a nail in your foot” and got this (I didn’t remember it right):

Nothing To Do
by Shel Silverstein

Nothing to do?
Nothing to do?
Put some mustard in your shoe,
Fill your pockets full of soot,
Drive a nail into your foot,
Put some sugar in your hair,
Place your toys upon the stair,
Smear some jelly on the latch,
Eat some mud and strike a match,
Draw a picture on the wall,
Roll some marbles down the hall,
Pour some ink in daddy’s cap —
Now go upstairs and take a nap.

My reading of and about Updike during the past few days stirred the old memory, so that was why I looked them up. I was glad to read them again. They kind of go together, these two.

Updike’s poem is witty and fun. And Silverstein’s is, well, it’s full of what I would call just good old fashioned advice.

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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