Collected Stories
 by John Cheever

Vintage Classics
1990, Paperback (Originally published 1979)
Winner, 1979 Pulliter Prize

John Cheever was an award winning novelist and short story writer. He won the National Book Award in 1958 for his novel The Wapshot Chronicle and a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his Collected Stories. Other novels include Bullet Park, Falconer and The Wapshot Scandal.

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"'Our lives aren't sordid, are they, darling? Are they?' She flung her arms around his neck and drew his face down to hers. 'We're happy, aren't we, darling? We are happy, aren't we?'"

Reviewed by Alex Thornber

Cheever gained fame initially as a novelist, however he also published many short stories and won a Pulitzer prize for this very collection.  His stories are mostly concerned with suburban life in America and have frequently drawn comparisons to Chekov.  This collection has a total of 61 stories, spanning some 900 pages, and includes some of his most famous tales like The Swimmer, The Enormous Radio and Reunion.  

Though Cheever is now considered to be a master of short stories, it has not always been easy to access his output in the field.  A majority of his stories were originally published in places like The New Yorker, magazines with short shelf lives, and when Cheever did have collections published they soon fell out of print.  This collection from Vintage however, finally allows us to see the true scale of Cheever's contribution to the art of storytelling.  

The story Reunion, though I believe it is the shortest in the entire collection, is as close to a perfect short story that I have ever read.  Reunion depicts an hour in the life of a young man who is meeting his estranged father in Grand Central Station while he is "between trains."  The young man and his father move from restaurant to restaurant trying to get a drink but due to the father's behaviour they keep getting kicked out and refused service.  The encounter is all at once uncomfortable and humorous, but above all memorable.    

Cheever manages to tell you the entire story of the families' history and troubles without actually mentioning it. Aside from the line, "He was a stranger to me - my mother divorced him three years ago and I hadn't been with him since…" we know nothing about why they haven't bee in contact or why they are meeting now. Cheever withholds so much information yet manages to do so without ever giving you a feeling that something is left unsaid; Cheever knew exactly what to put into his stories in order to elicit the right reactions and feeling from his readers and it is that skill which makes this story so close to perfection.  

The Enourmous Radio is the only Cheever story to verge on science fiction, but that is by no means a bad thing.  It is a satire, set in an apartment building, which pokes fun at the nosey disposition of neighbours.  Jim and Irene Westcott, Cheever explains, "differed from their friends, their classmates, and their neighbours only in an interest they shared in serious music."  After the Westcotts' temperamental radio finally breaks beyond repair, Jim purchased his wife a new one as a surprise. When the radio arrives, the couple realise, it is far more powerful than they were initially aware of; through their radio the Westcotts are able to hear the conversations, arguments and affairs of their neighbours.  

The story progresses as Irene spends more and more time listening to the radio and soon becomes overwhelmed with the misery of the world she had been shown through the conversations she listened to. There is an illuminating scene in a lift where Irene is trying to figure out which of the other women in the lift she had heard talking.  "Which one of them had been to Sea Island? she wondered.  Which one had overdrawn her bank account?" Cheever magnificently funnels all that is deplorable in the act of gossip and puts it into one lady and, by proxy, his readers.  

This truly is Cheever's strength; he tells us these stories about everyday people and their everyday problems in such a way that we cannot resist being fascinated by them. We want to know everything we can, we read the stories over and over agin, trying to draw out every last fragment of information.

Listen to a story from this collection on the

Alex Thornber writes short stories, non fiction and is the editor of Tomlit Quarterly.
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