Tag: cheever

Cheever, “The Pot of Gold” (1950)

cheever pot of gold

Out of reach. (c The Notebooks)

One of Cheever’s dreadfully tragic stories of eternal loss in the chase for fortune, set out in one of his gems of an opening:

Ralph and Laura Whittemore never get their pot of gold. There is, as in “Torch Song,” that enumeration of cases, of failed ventures, of dashed hopes, building up to the final one shortly after a party where Laura was face to face with Alice, another woman who’s known 15 years of failures and of living in hotels. Laura at that point is still under the illusion of a coming break, though the man who was going to make her and her husband rich will have a stroke, and the deal will be off. Alice can’t believe Laura’s luck. It’s a Cheeverian set-up, the more to hammer the latest downfall. Ralph “was such a prisoner of his schemes and expectations,” and he was sentenced to life in that prison.

Oddly, the story is set in post-war American and makes a reference to the wealth all around. But not enough for Ralph and Laura to know how to tap into.

The New Yorker, October 14, 1950

Cheever, “Torch Song” (1947)

scarlett johanssen cheever torch song widow

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow.

She is the Widow, “that lewd and searching shape of death” who becomes the lover of men who love to abuse her until she revels in their demise. Her revenge. The New Yorker’s summary: “Jack Lorey knew Joan Harris from their home town in Ohio. They met when they both came to New York. This is the story of how Joan, who always appeared wholesome and generous, turned into a strange creature ready to gloat over the decay and death of her lovers – one by one. Jack realizes this after many, many years when he himself is down and out and she comes along to befriend him.” I counted seven men before be became the eighth. The story is a touch misogynistic, isn’t it? The woman as preying mantis, as serial killer.

The New Yorker, October 4, 1947

Cheever, “The Summer Farmer” (1948)

Maya Lin's "Storm King Wavefield-" (2008).

Maya Lin’s “Storm King Wavefield-” (2008).

In part a Cold War story of assumptions, rivalry, xenophobia, envy, and a false accusation.

Paul Hollis takes the train from Grand Central to his family’s summer home Upstate. Like all Cheever characters he drinks a lot. He’s harried, in half a daze from drink and “signs of obsolete ness.” He has a kind wife and several children. He loves the time away from the city. He likes to farm. He agrees with his wife to get the children a couple of rabbits for the summer, training wheels before they may get a dog in the city. The family’s hourly laborer on the farm is an unreformed communist who raises at capitalism and “those who drank martinis.” Paul almost asks him why he doesn’t go back where he came from, in that veiled way of wasps buzzing passively around the aggressive questions never asked. Kasiak, the laborer, explains how his violent treatment as a child, as if he were a convict, even at his father’s hand, led him to the United States, where he awaits the revolution he is certain will come. The two agree to do a certain chore Sunday morning, as if one upping each other with resolve. “The puerile race of virtue and industry had begun.” Throughout, Cheever paints his bucolic canvas with the summer haze and warmth of his children’s sounds, their father’s sternness, their mother’s affection, the mother’s sister hauled up with the family to dry out, the landscape a narcotic on Paul’s anxieties. Later Sunday, the children scream. The rabbits are dead. Paul immediately accused Kasiak. He even sees poison crystals near the cage. He threatens to kill Kasiak if he were to ever harm the children, as the poison could have done. But Kasiak had not put the poison there. Paul’s wife had, the previous summer, and forgotten it there. Paul and his “loss of principle” take the train back to New York.

The New Yorker, August 7, 1948, The Enormous Radio.

Cheever, “The Sutton Place Story” (1946)

Deborah is the not-quite 3-year-old daughter of Katheryn and Robert Tennyson. Her parents party and get drunk so much that “She made Martinis in the sand pile and thought all the illustrations of cups, goblets, and glasses in her nursery books were filled with Old-Fashioneds.” She is mostly cared for by a nanny, Mrs. Hartley, with whom she quarrels as if the two were an old couple. At one of her parents’ parties, they entertain a woman called Renee Hall, an actress, about 35, “dissipated and gentle,” who saw her life disappearing and her wish for a child unfulfilled. She takes to Deborah, but has a falling out with the Tennysons when she becomes too attached to the little girl, lavishes her with too many gifts and even ventures to question her parents’ style:

But eventually Mrs. Hartley hands off Deborah to Renee to look after for a few hours a week, especially when Mrs. Hartley goes to church. One of those days, right after Deborah tells renee that she has a friend called Martha and is dismissed “of course you do”) Deborah disappears. Her parents are in a panic. The search is on. Police finally find her in front of an antique store on Third Avenue. She tells her father she had to find her friend Martha.

The story recall Flannery O’Connor’s “The River,” where of course the boy, also surrounded by drunkard and somewhat more indifferent parents, isn’t found but drowns, looking for his own version of Martha.

[Missing children, panic, loss, unfulfilled life, projection, parenting, drinking]
The New Yorker, June 29, 1946

Cheever, “The Hartleys”

john cheever

Jesus. Mr. and Mrs. Hartley travel to a ski resort with their young daughter Anne, age unknown. Anne is closest to her father when the family travels to the mountains. She refuses to learn to ski on her own. “Mr. and Mrs. Hartley spoke oftener to Anne than to each other, as if they had come to a point in their marriage where there was nothing to say.” Cheever mirrors the bleakness of the marriage in the landscape, in premonitory ways: “Its only colors were the colors of spent fire, and this impressed itself upon one–as if the desolation were something more than winter, as if it were the work of a great conflagration.” They are like the couples Wharton describes in “The Long Run,” “the listless couples wearing out their lives in shabby watering places, and hanging on the favour of hotel acquaintances.”

There are two conflagration. The first, a chambermaid hears through the transom as she approaches the Hartleys’ room–while Anne is playing elsewhere–and she hears Mrs. Hartley bemoan these trips in search of lost love:

cheever excerpt, The Hartleys

The second is that cruel, out-of-nowhere way of Cheever’s to spring a catastrophe on the austere bucolic setting: Anne is mangled and killed by the ski lift’s motor after she gets caught in the rope. From 1948.