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Jewish World Review
Nov. 19, 2008
/ 21 Mar-Cheshvan 5769
A time like this
"Any precise documentation of one's immaturity is embarrassing...."
I've been reading the latest collection of John Cheever's short stories in the vain hope that some of the style will rub off. For is there anyone who can read the first sentence or two of a Cheever story and quit there?
For instance: "So help me G-d it gets more and more preposterous...." Which is how his irresistible, tragicomic, surreal and all too real "The Death of Justina" begins. How do you not read a story that starts like that?
The same goes for his chilling "The Five-Forty-Eight." ("When Blake stepped out of the elevator, he saw her. A few people, mostly men waiting for girls, stood in the lobby watching the elevator doors. She was among them. As he saw her, her face took on a look of such loathing and purpose that he realized she had been waiting for him....")
Before the story ends, you're almost hoping the threatening female figure every man's nightmare vision of the woman spurned will kill off the protagonist, so vile and predatory has Cheever made him, doubtless drawing from the writer's and every male's dimmest recesses.
What's the fascination of Cheever? It's not just the characters. It's certainly not the plots, if any. It's his easy yet sure, inner grasp of the time, the places, the expectations of his era (it would be too much to call them hopes) and their inevitably being dashed.
Open a Cheever story and the time and place comes back at once. There are the sounds and smells and sensations of trains and hotel lobbies and elevators and men's bars and the gritty wet New York streets after a grimy rain. And all the idle dreams and fakeries and counterfeits of the mind that pay faith the truest homage by being such transparent forgeries of it.
But in these pages, too, are the touching affections and affectations we live by the memories of suburban lawns and sandy beaches and the women and men we loved. Cheever conjures it all up so well and so simply, from within his characters, that you can see it, touch it. There is no accomplishment like writing well and simply.
The man was a master of the elegiac. There, look, are the rows of commuters at a time when men still wore hats on the 5:48 out of Grand Central each, you'd swear, with the same newspaper turned to the same page in a world still predictable in every surface detail and, underneath, utterly uncontrollable.
The sense of a time past and yet so present in these stories was so strong I turned to the back of the book an advance copy of the Library of America's forthcoming collection of Cheever stories to see when "The Death of Justina" had come out. Sure enough: Esquire, November 1960. Of course. An election November not so different from this one. It was a somber, ominous overhanging time, shot through with rays of tinselly hope as the administrations and styles changed.
Then, too, the economy was uncertain, the future even less clear than usual, and the rhetoric of the presidential campaign still shading reality. We halfway believed that the passing recessions of the old and fast-dying Eisenhower Era had threatened a return to the Great Depression, that the now forgotten Missile Gap that John F. Kennedy had made a theme of his campaign was real, and the nation's future and the Future of the Free World was in peril. But now it had been saved. Our shining prince had come. The relief, the hope, the anticipation was palpable. The best and brightest would soon be in control again. (The Cuban Missile Crisis was still three years away.)
It was, in short, another brief age of the New. The permeating thought of the best-and-brightest was in the air, on radio and television, and in the papers, inescapable, reflected even in the words of those who would strive to swim against the tide of the times. The new Beautiful People set the fashion. Just as we wanted to dress and act and drive and have adorable children like them, we the young and advanced couldn't help wanting to think like them and so be thought well of.
There was no trick to it. It was all as easy as turning on the evening news, where insight was available at the turn of a channel and Walter Cronkite was its Prophet. Then as now, nobody who counted was so dated as to believe in Truth, let alone Sin. We sought a less dramatic, more sophisticated rectitude, as narrow as the ties and lapels, as perfect as the simple black dress.
We strove for a certain look, The Look. You could tell those who'd captured it by the way they dressed and talked, quietly, assuredly, not needing to make a big thing of it. The lonely crowd didn't go in for show. After the election, the sore losers were silent for the most part, the sore winners everywhere, and about to change the world. Hope and Change were in the air.
The departing president, everybody who was anybody knew, was just an incompetent old duffer, however victorious in war or good-natured in peace, who had been manipulated by evil characters behind the scenes, or maybe visible at stage right. He had presided over a stagnating American dream that would now be brought back to life by our new, vibrant young president-elect, so appealing in every way.
Now was the decade of our discontent to be made glorious summer. There was something traditionally American about the way the newness was being rolled out, the air of Unprecedented Crisis being heightened, the better for all the new president's men to resolve it happily ever after. It was a time, in short, much like this.
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