How to Write a Believable Happy Ending

As author Ted Thompson learned from John Cheever, a redemptive resolution doesn't erase the darkness of a story, but instead finds the light within it.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

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.

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.