The Big Red Book

May 28, 2020, by Sandii Buckman

By Theron Hopkins

That is what people like to call The Stories of John Cheever, and, if you have seen the book, you are well aware that it is an apt description.  I am looking at it right now, on a bookshelf full of books, and it stands out distinctly.  This book grows in distinction once you have had the opportunity to open it and start reading the 61 stories that make up its pages, all chosen by the author, and all placed in chronological order—minus one—of a writing life that started earnestly in a cold-water Manhattan flat and ended in upper-middle-class pleasantry in Ossining, New York, on the wide banks of the Hudson River, still writing. That is what he did, always, from the moment he was kicked out of his Massachusetts prep school and moved down to New York City to live with his brother, Fred, in a one-room apartment made famous in a Walker Evans photograph, not because JOHN CHEEVER LIVED HERE!, but rather because this black and white picture was such a gut-churning vision of desperate poverty.  How could a person live like this?  John Cheever did, and Fred did.  The two brothers subsisted on stale bread, raisins, and milk, while Fred worked at menial jobs and John sat in that squalid room and wrote stories, day after week after month after year.  His first published one—“Expelled”—appeared in The New Republic when he was eighteen years old and details his side of what precipitated his early exit from Thayer Academy.  This publication was followed by several hundred more—121 of them in The New Yorker magazine—over fifty-plus years of sitting at his typewriter and willing magic to happen.  With him, it happened regularly, and it happened in a lot of places where people might say, “You write here?”  He wrote in that dismal garret, with his brother asleep on the grimy couch across from him.  He wrote in the basement storage closet of the apartment building where he lived with his wife and young children.  He wrote in maids’ quarters, at kitchen tables, in tool sheds.  He moved his family out to the country and set up his typewriter in a tent behind the house.  People would say, “Why don’t you set yourself up in a nice room?”  “I’d rather write something good in a room that’s not so good,” he’d reply, and then walk down the hall or down the steps or across the yard to get back to work.  What he created looks nothing like these places where he worked.  He made worlds with his stories and sentences, and, when you sit down to read them, there is no question that you have in your hands something that could not have been written by anyone else.  His “voice”—the voice on the page—is unmistakable and singular.  Could that be one of the marks of the great artist?  She designed that building.  He cooked that risotto.  How do you know?  I don’t know.  I just know.  And John Cheever wrote that sentence.  I just know.  How?  Why?  Let’s get back to that “minus one” in “The Big Red Book”, the story that he wrote after hundreds of others, but then said, “This is the one to kick things off.”  Let the other sixty works line up into their proper order.  This story is entitled “Goodbye, My Brother”, and it is called, by Allan Gurganus—his student and friend—“John Cheever’s favorite John Cheever story.”  He had finished the final paragraph, that begins with the sentence, “Oh, what can you do with a man like that,” he had bundled up the story, and, like a little kid showing off his new bicycle, he sought ought his friend to hand it over and say, “You’ve got to read this.”  And, you’ve got to read this and this and this: about Francis Weed, whose Minnesota to New York airline flight crash lands in a farmer’s field , but who still makes it home in time for dinner; about Donald Wryson, who bakes a late-night cake as a defense against his semi-recurrent Depressions (“…during the eight or nine years he was married to Irene he must have baked eight or nine cakes.”); about the little girl, Amy, who goes about her little girl life, while her parents drink and drink, and then drink some more; about the semi-famous American poet who is terrified that his neighbors in the Italian village that he’s trying to call home will discover that he is a closeted television writer; about the brother who is so eager for some sign of “light” from his brother, Tifty, that he strikes him on the back of the head with a clump of seaweed; about the day the pig fell in the well.  And on.  And on.  John Cheever is an American Original, whose work sings with what William Faulkner called “…the human heart in conflict with itself,” and he is a writer worth reading, most especially the writing that populates the pages of “The Big Red Book”. 

This is all to say that the Inspire School’s English Department is a big fan of the stories of John Cheever.  Maybe you are, too.  Or maybe, you would like to “read and find out”, as an old English teacher used to advise his students.  Either way, we bear glad tidings, in that, starting on Monday, May 4, 2020, we will be hosting, through Schoology, an exploration of four of his stories, one each week, and courtesy of The New Yorker “Fiction Podcast”.  First up will be “Reunion”, read aloud and discussed by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Richard Ford.  Second is “The Swimmer”, read and discussed by Irish writer and author of The Gathering, Anne Enright.  Third is “The Enormous Radio”, read and discussed by Nathan Englander, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Ann Frank.  Lastly, Mary Gaitskill, author of Bad Behavior and Two Girls, Fat and Thin, will read and discuss “The Five Forty Eight”.  All of these podcasts are hosted by the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, and they range in length from twelve minutes for the “Reunion” reading to one hour to hear “The Five Forty Eight” read and discussed.  What an opportunity to gather around the old laptop or Chromebook or Smartphone, and listen.

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