Now this is definitely dangerous territory for a writer. Precipitation has been tempting young writers as a dramatic climax for a long time: Write yourself into a corner and you always have the weather. To me, it’s the deus ex machina of everyday spiritual crises—guilt and sin cleansed by rain—and it just might be the most handy cop-out available. (When I get caught in the rain, I have yet to find God—I mostly get cold and wet and pissed.) But somehow, in the way the prose functions, Cheever, goddamn, he pulls it off. Despite all of my resistances, I believe the character really is relieved of his guilt. It’s a beautiful, redemptive passage, one I’ve probably read out loud a hundred times:
I was thinking sadly about my beginnings, about how I was made by a riggish couple in a midtown hotel after a six-course dinner with wines, and my mother had told me so many times that if she hadn’t drunk so many Old-Fashioneds before that famous dinner I would still be unborn on a star. And I thought about my old man and that night at the Plaza and the bruised thighs of the peasant women of Picardy and all the brown-gold angels that held the theatre together and my terrible destiny. While I was walking towards the Pewter’s, there was the harsh stirring and all the trees and gardens, like a draft on a bed of fire, and I wondered what it was until I felt the rain on my hand and face, and I began to laugh.
I wish I could say that a kindly lion had set me straight, or an innocent child, or the strains of distant music from some church, but it was no more than the rain on my head—the smell of it flying up my nose—that showed me the extent of my freedom from the bones in Fontainebleau and the works of a thief. There were ways out of my trouble if I cared to make use of them. I was not trapped. I was here on earth because I chose to be. And it was no skin off my elbow how I had been given the gifts of life so long as I possessed them, and I possessed them then—the tie between the wet grass roots and the hair that grew out of my body, the thrill of my mortality that I had known on summer nights, loving the children, and looking in front of Christina’s dress.
I don’t completely know how Cheever lifts us straight off the page and into the skies here. The more that I look at it and try to pick it apart the less I can make sense of it. The only thing that I can say is that through the music of that language, and perhaps the repetition of certain images from earlier in the story, he’s able to conjure in me a convincing experience of something that is about as abstract and fuzzy as you can get: a man being set free of his conscience.
I also can’t imagine anyone else being able to write “the bruised thighs of the peasant women of Picardy,” or “the brown-gold angels that held the theatre together.” So strange, these images! And yet there’s something about the unexpectedness of them that disarms me, and opens me to whatever else the story wants to do.
And what that is, at least to me, comes in this line: “The tie between the wet grass roots and the hair that grew out of my body.” God, that just flays me. It comes out of nowhere—the narrator comes alive to beauty in that moment, and it enables him, ennobles him, to make a dignified choice about how to live his life. He can decide what kind of man he wants to be. And so he turns around and goes home, whistling in the dark.
After that, his life sort of comes back together—he’s rehired at the job and returns the money that he stole. Ultimately the story has a comedic structure: The world gets more and more disordered, but in the end it’s put back together anew.
This is one of the things that’s so apparent when you’re reading Cheever: his openness to redemptive beauty. His suburbs aren’t corrupt, awful places. They’re not places that have dark, ugly roots that he’s trying to expose—which is often the basic project in the subgenre of American suburban fiction (and film and TV). Cheever’s world is one that, no matter how buttoned-up it may be, is continuously ruptured by unexpected beauty. For me, finding this on the page was a revelation. You aren’t supposed to write about suburban neighborhoods like that—to acknowledge their beauty, and locate great meaning in it. It’s pretty clear why writers like Jim Harrison spend so much time describing the natural world, but we’ve become almost conditioned to believe that manicured suburban aesthetics are only an illusion to conceal some fundamental rottenness.
In Cheever, this isn’t really the case. No matter how cruel his characters are to each other, no matter how much they disappoint each other or what sins they commit, there’s still a sense that there’s light in his world. It comes through in the way he describes trees so well, and smells and breezes and the ocean. The landscape balances out the torment of the tortured characters within it—and sometimes, that beauty is even enough to save them.
Writing a happy ending that feels meaningful is probably one of the hardest tricks in literature. There’s a lot of comedy out there (particularly in movies and television) that follows that ancient structure of the world falling apart and then being put back together again, but so much of it feels like, okay, those problems were solved and now I can forget about them. You don’t want a literary story to have that effect—you want it to have a resonance with the reader beyond the last page, and I feel like it’s a lot easier to do with tragedy than comedy.
There’s an essay I think about a lot by Italo Calvino called “Lightness,” in which he talks about levity as a virtue in literature and storytelling: He argues for the necessity of lightness, and insists we need it if we’re going to be telling dark and hard truths. A guiding image of the piece is the way that Perseus cannot look at Medusa’s ugliness directly—only by watching her reflected in his shield can he see her without becoming petrified to stone. (As Calvino says, “Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live.”) I suppose that this was a part of what I was hoping to do in my own book—to explore the wounded and lost, yes, and to render the deficiencies and strains of even the most conventional and responsible ways of life. But at the same time I was invariably thinking of Cheever’s wide-eyed wonder, and was inspired to look again at the memories of my own childhood in that way, to find reverence for the frozen marshlands of those Connecticut towns, and the stone archways of the Merritt Parkway, and for all those suited men riding the shoreline trains.