The legend, much to Mrs. Cheever’s consternation, is that her husband, John, used to do his best (and only) writing in the morning because by the time afternoon came he was too drunk to use a typewriter.
An excerpt from “Goodbye, My Brother,” one of the author’s best known short stories, reads like a conversation between the two: ” ‘Will you have a Martini?’ ‘I don’t care… whiskey, gin – I don’t care what I drink. Give me a little rum.’ ‘We don’t have any rum. Would you like some Irish, dear? Isn’t Irish what you’ve always liked? There’s some Irish on the sideboard. Why don’t you get yourself some Irish?’ ” Despite its apparent preoccupation with Irish whiskey, The Stories of John Cheever, in which “Goodbye, My Brother” appears, won Mr. Cheever a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1979, and then an American Book Award for Fiction in 1981.
Taken as a whole, the stories are a painting of a lost and sparkling time, wonderfully set in a post-Gatsby, pre-Woodstock Northeast, in which men wear starched collars to work and drink lunch at the club, and women express marital dissatisfaction and quiet desperation by burning supper, and after supper everybody has a Martini.
Cheever’s prose, though windy, is the perfect vehicle for his imagery: self-contained and proper to a fault, but shot through with seething passion, desperation, violence, and confusion, like its subjects. The Stories of John Cheever is an absorbing book; readers become lost in a world more refined, polite, mannered, and yet eruptive than our own. It’s a fascinating world to look in at, worth the 819 pages it occupies. In the author’s own perfect words, these are stories of:
“…a time when the city of New York was still filled with river light… and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that lost generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their caughing, who used to get drunk at cocktail parties… sail for Europe on ships, and were truly nostalgic for love and happiness.”
Lost generation indeed, and regrettably so.