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.
January 30, 2009 § Leave a comment
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:
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
Superphosphate-fed foods feed me;
Superservice keeps me new.
Who would dare to supersede me,
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.
January 28, 2009 § Leave a comment