John Cheever: The Country Husband

Deal Me In – Week 40

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I’m taking a break today from “Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut” to post about my Week 40 story for Deal Me In 2015. I drew the Ten of Hearts which corresponded to John Cheever’s “The Country Husband”. This is my first time reading Cheever and I’m glad I finally did. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

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“Country” in the title could be replaced with “Suburban”. As this story was published in 1955, I don’t know whether “the suburbs” was a term, yet. While much has been written about the darker side of the suburbs, I don’t think there are many stories better than this one on the topic.

Cheever writes about Francis Weed and his mid-life crisis in a nuanced, detailed manner that leaves the reader with a mixture of sympathy and disdain for Francis and his wife, Julia.  Not caring much where he stands among his community, Francis endlessly frustrates his wife and his children. Insulting one of the community’s pillars doesn’t help matters. Without condoning it, Cheever manages to keep Francis’ infatuation with the babysitter just shy of creepy.

I would say Cheever’s writing brought the story up at least a few notches from where a story about the suburbs and a mid-life crisis could have gone. While Francis sits on his patio, the sounds of the neighborhood flood into his hearing making his evening both depressing and peaceful:

Then Donald Goslin, who lived at the corner, began to play the “Moonlight Sonata”. He did this nearly every night. He threw the tempo out the window and played it rubato from beginning to end, like an outpouring of tearful petulance, lonesomeness, and self-pity – of everything it was Beethoven’s greatness not to know. The music rang up and down the street beneath the trees like an appeal for love, for tenderness, aimed at some lonely housemaid – some fresh-faced, homesick girl from Galway, looking at old snapshots in her third-floor room.

An off-tempo “Moonlight Sonata” sounds like the perfect soundtrack for someone who might go “over the edge” at any minute.

This story is included in The Best Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike.

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Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Unpaid Consultant”

I didn’t realize Kurt Vonnegut put financial advisors into so many of his stories until these stories I’ve been reading this week. “Unpaid Consultant”, I admit, is a boring title.  The story itself has some wackiness and charm, though. It sounds very familiar in form to “Custom-Made Bride”.  The narrator starts by telling the reader that so many of his old flames come to him for financial advice and then continues by telling about a specific old flame.

Celeste Divine (another great Vonnegut name) is in need of some money-handling assistance as her career as a television star has taken off.  When the narrator visits her at her house, she introduces him to her husband, Harry.  Harry is laying on the floor thinking about ketchup.  He is an unpaid consultant for the ketchup industry and is hilariously oblivious to the excitement of his wife’s fame. It’s all about ketchup:

Harry looked at me. “What do you call it? Catchup? Ketchup? Catsup?”

I always enjoy the way Vonnegut’s stories make the reader think “He’s got a point” or “I never thought of that”. In the case of this story, Vonnegut appears to say “there has to be somebody out there thinking about ketchup”.

Yeah. He’s got a point.

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Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Custom-Made Bride”

In “Custom-Made Bride”, Kurt Vonnegut explores the dark side of Pygmalion by telling the story of Otto Krummbein, a fashionable inventor, and his wife, Fallaleen.  The couple’s financial advisor views the two through the lense of Otto being on the verge of bankruptcy.  Until reading these stories this week, I did not realize how often Vonnegut uses business and finance people in his stories.  Most of the time, they play the straight person to all the crazies living around them.  In this case, though, a poignant ending lets the finance dude in on the couples’ realization that they do love each other even if Falloleen would rather be her real self, Kitty Cahoun.

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The role of women in Vonnegut’s stories sometimes seems dated from the standpoint of the 21st century; however, in this 1950’s-placed story, one can tell he is at least taking a step toward the idea that women aren’t simply for makeup, dresses and jewelry. The story implies that all the money and fashion doesn’t seal the deal in a relationship. Something has to be there that is more honest and less shallow.  I thought it a nice touch that this couple learns this lesson instead of being destroyed by the lack of it:

“Oh dear,” she said. “I’m starting to feel like Falloleen again.”

“Don’t be afraid of it,” said Otto. “Just make sure this time that Kitty shines through in all her glory.”

While I love the cynicism that Vonnegut is able to put into so much of his work, I enjoy his ability to provide a sentimental touch every once in a while.

Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Souvenir”

Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Souvenir” includes the presence of World War II that shows up in so many of his stories.  In the case here, it comes in the form of a flashback that is told to a pawnbroker by a returning soldier.

Eddie takes a watch to Joe Bane to get an appraisal.  While Bane attempts to lowball Eddie in the price of the watch, Eddie tells him about the day he and his friend Buzzer find out that the Allies have won the war:

The young farmer, whose name was Eddie, and his best buddy Buzzer walked out into peace and freedom skinny, ragged, dirty, and hungry, but with no ill will toward anyone. They’d gone to war out of pride, not bitterness. Now the war was over, the job done, and they wanted only to go home. They were a year apart, but as alike as two poplars in a windbreak.

Unfortunately, the two soldiers are in Germany at the end of the war among those who don’t necessarily understand or care that it’s over.  Another wheeling and dealing ( as opposed to the one with the pawnbroker in the present time) among German soldiers ends tragically with Eddie maintaining possession of the watch – which by the time the story is finished – is understood to be of great value; however, Joe Bane has just made Eddie think it’s worth very little much to Bane’s detriment.

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I like the way Vonnegut swaps “price tags” in this story.  What is of real value isn’t known to anyone except the reader. The price tags placed on other things with lesser potential catches the eye of many of the characters in this story – and other Vonnegut stories, for that matter.

Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Poor Little Rich Town”

Newell Cady had the polish, the wealth, the influence, and the middle-aged good looks of an idealized Julius Caesar. Most of all, though, Cady had know-how, know-how of a priceless variety that caused large manufacturing concerns to bid for his services like dying sultans offering half their kingdoms for a cure.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Poor Little Rich Town”, we have another story with real estate although it’s more in the background than in “Any Reasonably Offer”.  I’m not sure why Vonnegut is choosing real estate as a topic but he does it really well in another story from Bagombo Snuff Box, “The Package”.  I would put it several notches above these two other stories.  But back to “Poor Little Rich Town”.

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Newell Cady has taken a job with Federal Aparatus Corporation (a vintage Vonnegut name) and proceeds to put into place all kinds of process-improvements and earns raves from his superiors for stamping out inefficiencies.  Outside of work, Newell buys a house in Spruce Falls, the little town close by, where he meets neighbors, postal workers, firemen, etc. Here, he also insists on making things more efficient, including the annual Hobby Show.  Cady begins to realize that not all aspects of life welcome extreme efficiency nor do they benefit from it.

Maybe the point Vonnegut is trying to make is that not everything needs to have a point or a goal or some sort of achievement to be worthy of admiration.

I don’t think Vonnegut’s writing always fits into specific genres or are structured using a certain formula. Many of Vonnegut’s stories are written from what I would call simply the joy of creating. This joy doesn’t always go hand in hand with efficiency.

Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Any Reasonable Offer”

It’s coming up on Banned Book Week for 2015 and this year, to honor the freedom I have to read what I want to read, I am reading the remaining short stories in Kurt Vonnegut’s collection Bagombo Snuff Box.  I began this collection back in 2012 and have slowly posted about each story that I’ve read.  Since Vonnegut is one of my favorite advocates of free speech and freedom of expression, I figured finishing up these stories would be a good way to celebrate this upcoming week.  So here is the first of ten posts.

Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction

As I’ve said numerous times on this blog (but it’s been a while so I’ll say it again), Vonnegut is known for his biting satire and social commentary in which it is not uncommon for him to use material and language that could be considered offensive by some; however, so many of his short stories have such a playful innocence, a twinkle-in-his-eye kind of fun and even sometimes what I might consider a “cuteness” that I find myself wondering how he could be considered so subversive and dangerous that various governing bodies feel the need to ban or censor his work.

In this first story, “Any Reasonable Offer”, a real estate agent bemoans his job and the people who use his services only to go behind his back to avoid paying commission:

…it occurred to me there isn’t any profession – or racket, or whatever – that takes more of a beating from its clients than real estate. If you stand still, they club you. If you run, they shoot.

The agent narrates the story and as with many of Vonnegut’s stories, the narrator is unnamed and the reader gets at least a slight impression that the narrator is a fictional verison of Vonnegut, himself.  So much of Vonnegut’s work revolves around the absurdities of life and these aren’t lost on the realtor in this story. He attempts to sell a mansion to what appears to be a wealthy couple only to find that not all is as it seems with them.  I enjoyed the ending where the realtor takes an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” response to the absurd.

Kate Chopin: The Storm

Deal Me In – Week 39

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According to Joyce Carol Oates’ introduction, while probably written sometime in the early part of the Twentieth Century, Kate Chopin’s story “The Storm” wasn’t published until 1969.  Oates goes on to say that the subject matter of the story would have made it difficult to have gotten published when it was actually written.  I read this introduction in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (edited by Joyce Carol Oates) when deciding to include “The Storm” in my Deal Me In 2015 short story list – so of course my curiosity has been up ever since wondering what might make the story so controversial.

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In picking the Four of Spades for Week 39 of Deal Me In, I’ve finally been able to read “The Storm”.  The story centers around a torrid affair during a rain storm by a man and a woman who are married to other people.  By today’s standards, the description of the affair is relatively tame; however, Chopin includes an explicitness that probably warrants Oate’s comments:

The generous abundance of her passion, without guile or trickery, was like a white flame which penetrated and found response in depths of his own sensuous nature that had never yet been reached.

The subject matter and its description isn’t what makes this story memorable to me. The fascinating aspect is the chain-like manner in which the story is structured. With the affair occuring in the middle of the story, the sections before highlight the woman’s husband and her son. The sections after highlight the man and his wife. The story continues in real (or present) time with no flashbacks.  This structure brilliantly relays the interconnectedness of everyone and displays the idea that, in spite of the seclusion of the affair, it has an effect on more than just the two involved.

My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored byJay at Bibliophilopolis.