Happy endings are famously rare in literature. We turn to great books for emotional and ethical complexity, and broad-scale resolution cheats our sense of what real life is like. Because complex problems rarely resolve completely, the best books tend to haunt and unnerve readers even as they edify and entertain.
This is especially true in writing about the suburbs, perhaps because that setting has served as a symbolic happy ending to the broader American cultural narrative. It’s no accident that the best-known stories about the upper middle class—books like John Updike’s Rabbit, Run; Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road; Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, to name a few, and films like American Beauty—tend to have exceptionally brutal finales. These works, in their final moments, devastate and eviscerate their characters—and with them the notion that suburban living is the proper happy ending for the American life.
When I spoke with Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits, we discussed how John Cheever’s ecstatic and ultimately redemptive vision makes him singular among the suburbs’ sad bards; Cheever is rare among writers for his ability to consistently pull off believable happy endings. Thompson unpacked his favorite Cheever story, an overlooked gem called “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” and showed how the master makes a joyful moment complex, palpable, and real. He went on to explain how Cheever has challenged him to write about people—and the landscape he knows best—with greater generosity, and to always balance darkness with light.
The Land of Steady Habits, Thompson’s first book, takes its name from an informal state nickname for Connecticut. (The author grew up in Westport.) Anders Hill, a celebrated Wall Street financier quietly disturbed by the human and environmental costs of his profit-making, decides to amputate himself from the two dominant features of his life: his job and his wife. Unmoored, he begins to suspect his former responsibilities did much more than hem him in—they also gave him crucial shape.
Thompson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; his fiction has appeared in Tin House and Best New American Voices. He spoke to me by phone from his home in Brooklyn.
Ted Thompson: I first came across “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” when I was still living in Iowa City, the year after I graduated from the Writers’ Workshop. In those days I’d keep two or three books on my writing desk, not to read seriously but to open and dip into while I worked—just to hear the rhythm of certain people’s sentences and let their music guide me. Around that time, Cheever’s sentences especially worked a kind of magic on me. I used to love to pick up that thick, red-orange Collected Stories and leaf through it when I got stuck. One day, in the middle of a draft of a doomed short story I was working on, I opened randomly to “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” and began to read it for the first time. It was early in the morning, very quiet and still, and I remember being taken with the tone, and the sort of tossed-off mastery of those first sentences:
My name is Johnny Hake. I’m thirty-six years old, stand five feet eleven in my socks, weigh one hundred and forty-two pounds stripped, and am, so to speak, naked at the moment and talking into the dark.
I thought I’d read a paragraph or two, just the setup, to see how he slips into a story, but the next thing I knew I was halfway through the thing, way beyond what I had allowed myself, and reading it aloud to my computer screen.
I’m always surprised that it’s not one of his canonized stories, up there with “The Swimmer” and “Goodbye, My Brother” as what people first think of when they hear this writer’s name. It has the hallmarks of all the things that I love about Cheever: a kind of humorous premise, a character on the edge of emotional collapse, a world that is superficially stiff but always undercut by a kind of wildness. And more strikingly, his prose just soars through the whole thing (hence the urge to speak it aloud, which I have nearly every time I read it). Still, when I mention the story to others, they rarely know it. Or if they do, it hasn’t struck them. And it’s not one of the stories that often gets read at the Cheever celebrations, like the one I went to a few years ago at the 92nd Street Y. I’ve always wondered why.
It’s a pretty simple story on the surface. A man with a family in the suburbs loses his job at company that manufactures parablendeum, which seems to be kind of color-tinted Saran wrap. (I’m pretty sure Cheever invented this word because neither Google nor I seem to have heard of it.) He gets fired, decides to go into business on his own, and does a pretty pathetic job of it. Quickly, things get bleak. He runs out of money and can’t bring himself to tell his wife. And once that charade starts, he feels that his only hope is to break into his neighbors’ houses and steal their cash in the middle of the night.
He lives in a fictional neighborhood called Shady Hill, an opulent hamlet not unlike like the one in Ossining, New York, where Cheever really lived. One night after a late dinner party, he returns to house of his rich hosts and breaks into it. He tiptoes into their bedroom where they’re sleeping, sees a pair of pants hanging over a chair, and fishes out his friend’s wallet. There’s $900 cash inside. He flees with all of it into the night. This one act haunts the narrator for the rest of the story, and very nearly undoes him completely. He becomes totally convinced of his criminality. He starts seeing theft and sin everywhere he goes. He starts feeling as though everyone knows he’s done wrong. He starts to behave like person being eaten alive by guilt.
And still, his desperation is such that he has to break into a second neighbor’s house when he needs more money. He knows he won’t be caught: These friends are drunks, “booze fighters,” he calls them, and there’s no way they’ll wake up. As he’s walking to their house—this where Cheever becomes difficult to describe—the narrator’s shame and guilt have escalated to a place where he’s about to have a nervous breakdown. But rather than come apart at the seams, the natural world intervenes. The sky opens and it rains.