Posted in Short Stories

John Cheever: The Five-Forty-Eight (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 1)

A♦ A♦ A♦ A♦ A♦ A♦ A♦ A♦

John Cheever has slowly made his way into my circle of authors that I admire. “The Five-Forty-Eight” is only the third story of his that I’ve read. The others are “The Country Husband” and “The National Pastime”. If it wasn’t for writing so well, I might consider his stories tedious. They are full of detail – not just physical detail but extra side characters that with a lesser author would seem out of place. “The Five-Forty-Eight” allows me to include Cheever in that type of author like Alice Munro that can fit into a short story what most authors would have to include in a novel.

john-cheever

(photo obtained from goodreads.com)

I read this story when I selected the Ace of Diamonds for the very first week of Deal Me In 2017. It’s included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker edited by David Remnick. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

116829

Blake has an extramarital tryst with his new secretary and then fires her. Welcome to the fabulous 50’s! Of course, I’m wrong to imply that the 1950’s somehow cornered the market on chauvinism and this story is not a “that’s just the way it is” story anymore than the television series Mad Men was. It was difficult not to think of Mad Men as I read “The Five-Forty-Eight”. The comparison only becomes greater half way through when the reader realizes that Blake is a last name as Cheever reveals that Blake’s wife is Louise Blake. I find this minor detail fascinating and wonder what purpose Cheever may have had for choosing “Blake” for his protagonist’s name.

As the story proceeds, it becomes one of the best revenge stories I’ve read. Guess who says these chilling quotations?

“Even if I did have to kill you, they wouldn’t be able to do anything to me except put me back in the hospital, so you see I’m not afraid. But let’s sit quietly for a little while longer. I have to be calm.”

“OhI’ve been planning this for weeks. It’s all I’ve had to think about. I won’t harm you if you’ll let me talk. I’ve been thinking about devils. I mean if there are devils in the world, if there are people in the world who represent evil, is it our duty to exterminate them?”

And on a less spine-tingling note, I couldn’t help think about public transportation. The 5:48 in the title is a train out of New York City – a non-express train. While I’ve never lived in a city where public transportation might be considered the norm, I have utilized it. There is nothing better to a reader and book lover (or at least not to this one) than to spend a commute reading while someone else does the driving.

What have you read by John Cheever? And what’s your experience been with public transportation and reading?

Posted in Short Stories

John Cheever: The National Pastime (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 10)

2♦  2♦  2♦  2♦  2♦  2♦  2♦  2♦

The feeling that I could not assume my responsibilities as a baseball player without some help from him was deep, as if parental love and baseball were both national pastimes.

For Week 10 of my Deal Me IN 2016 short story project, I selected the Two of Diamonds, my first Wild Card of the year. For Wild Cards, I haven’t purposely made the decision to choose a story that is connected to the topic I’ve chosen for that suit; however, in the case of this week, I’ve selected John Cheever’s short story “The National Pastime” which has a baseball connection which also happens to be the category for all of my Diamond stories. I’ve wanted to read more Cheever stories since I read the beautiful and depressing “The Country Husband” last year. “The National Pastime” was recommended to me when I first started posting about my interest in baseball stories. It’s just taken me a while to find it.

4348374

Eben narrates the story about his relationship to his father, Leander, who was sixty years old at Eben’s birth. Leander suffered a major disappointment with the untimely birth of his son and forever associated Eben with it. At a young age, when Eben became interested in baseball, Leander injured his son while playing catch. Was the injury on purpose or accidental? It doesn’t really matter as Eben then continues to associate the injury with baseball  for the rest of his life. He goes out of his way to hide from other kids on the playground who decide to strike up a game. This fear of baseball follows him and has some drastic effects even into his college days and his career.

In a different story, it would be easy for the reader to hate Leander and feel sorry for Eben. At the same time, a reader might also want to tell Eben to “get over it”. Neither of these cases happened for me as Cheever puts enough depth into Leander so as to make him intriguing if not likable. Cheever also keeps Eben from completely hating or disowning his father even in the face of Leander’s obvious parental failures.

The story is set in rural St. Boltoph, Massachusetts not far from the ocean. Leander brags about the ocean experience of his ancestors and seems to always have some aspect of the sea about him. Interestingly enough, while he muses about his inability to play baseball and his father’s responsibility for that, Eben finds himself working on an oil rig and eventually establishes his career on the ocean. Irony? Perhaps.

Just as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata plays in the background of “The Country Husband”, as Eben walks away from a baseball field that ended his teaching career, Cheever puts Chopin’s preludes into the story:

I took off my uniform and stood for a long time in the shower. Then I dressed and walked back across the quadrangle, where I could hear, from the open windows of the music building, [a colleague] playing the Chopin preludes. The music – swept with rains, with ruins, and unrequited and autumnal loves, with here and there a passage of the purest narcissism – seemed to outrage my senses, and I wanted to stop my ears. 

My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Posted in Short Stories

A Fourth Anniversary Top Ten List

Today is the fourth anniversary of Mirror With Clouds. To celebrate, I am posting my top ten favorite short stories that I’ve read in 2015.  They are in order from 10 to 1.

10.) Here We Are by Dorothy Parker- A very funny story with one of my favorite quotations of the year:

“We have been married,” he said, “exactly two hours and twenty-six minutes.”

“My,” she said, “it seems like longer.”

9.) Miami-New York by Martha Gellhorn- One of Ernest Hemingway’s wives seems to have more of a sense of humor than he did.

8.) Death of a Favorite by J. F. Powers – One of my favorite narrators comes in the form of a cat.

7.) The Country Husband by John Cheever – A depressing but brilliantly written story about life in the suburbs with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” as the soundtrack:

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.

6.) The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx – I liked this story so much I read more of Proulx’s Wyoming stories from her collection Close Range.

5.) Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates – This is the story that has pushed me beyond simply an appreciation for Oates’ work. It’s by far the scariest story I read this year.

4.) In the Gloaming by Alice Elliot Dark – Tear jerker? Yes. Sentimental? No. Saddest story I read this year.

3.) God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen by Ernest Hemingway – A disturbing story with one of my favorite first lines:

In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that now have been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople.

2.) A Silver Dish by Saul Bellow – The title by no means gives away how funny and irreverent this story is.

1.) A Voice in the Night by Steven Millhauser- My fascination with Steven Millhauser’s work only increased with this story and it contained one of my favorite final lines:

A calling. Not Samuel’s call but another. Not that way but this way. Samuel ministering unto the Lord, his teacher-father ministering unto the generations. And the son? What about him? Far, far to the west of everywhere, ministering unto the Muse. Thanks, Old Sea-Parter, for leaving me be.

 

Posted in Short Stories

John Cheever: The Country Husband

Deal Me In – Week 40

10 ♥  10♥  10♥  10♥  10 ♥  10♥  10♥  10♥

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.

131146

“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.