Remembering John Cheever

We all have anniversaries. Key dates. Big events. Pivotal moments. Sometimes we need to kick the dust off those memories. We have to be reminded because our recall is foggy or may not recall at all. Stuff piles up. The unimportant or irrelevant takes precedent because we avoid a required remembrance. 

This week, I received a new cellphone. The previous slowed, could not hold a charge, conked out. A dreadful first-world problem. When the fruit-named company’s product arrived, I figured out the upgrade and transfer of data that we have deemed integral to our lives. A digital soul was transported into another body.

While cleaning things up, I discovered in the podcast app, an old download. This was a literature podcast, one that featured the reading of John Cheever’s very short story, Reunion. I have listened to it probably 20+ times. I have read the story more than double that number. It had such influence that I was published in Canada’s National Post newspaper in Letters to the Editor singing its praises as the best short story in response to a story on short stories. 

I have read everything Cheever has written. In an homage, I wrote a story that follows Cheever around Manhattan. It is self-published on Amazon, proving to be more cathartic than impactful. Cheever would have ripped it apart before pouring three fingers of gin to further lubricate his critique. I would have nodded and drank, lots.

That aside, let’s go back to the event in question. It is 2012. I had spent the previous dozen years commuting from Canada to Manhattan twice a month. I worked in branding, marketing and advertising. Held interesting roles on Madison Avenue and walked pavement that Mr. Cheever walked, knew it, so revered it.

And I idealized the man’s life. Or some version of it, more of what James Wolcott writing in Vanity Fair said rather than the reality of a tortured, trapped and closeted man. I love his stories for the preppy, suburban, keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ haunted existence that fly off the pages. Wolcott wrote, “If a tinge of melancholy haunts the cocktail hour, if a croquet mallet left derelict on the lawn evokes a broken merriment, if the bar car of a commuter train gives off a stale whiff of failed promise and bitter alimony, pause and pay homage to John Cheever. Light a bug candle on the patio in his honor. For Cheever—novelist, master of the short story, prolific diarist—is the patron saint of Eastern Seaboard pathos and redemption, the Edward Hopper of suburban ennui, preserving minor epiphanies in amber.”

Alexander Nazaryna of the New York Daily News also captured my fascination, “Long before Don Draper, there was John Cheever. The master of the American short story was the original purveyor of midcentury mystique, especially its darker facets. The endless drinking, ever-present cigarettes, infidelities, secrets of suburban life and anxiety regarding America’s place in the postwar world — they’re all in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Stories of John Cheever.”

Nazaryna was previewing an updated edition of the book on what was to be released on Cheever’s 100th birthday. That was the event I attended in 2012, shortly before leaving my time on Madison Avenue. I had given notice to the ad agency, which was not well received by my CEO. My last official duties would be overseeing our presence in Cannes at the global advertising festival in June. Prior to that, on a day in May, I attended the writer’s celebration.

For more than a decade, I had drunk in Manhattan. All was an extraordinary experience that I still cherish. I rubbed elbows with Pete Hamill, chatted with Sean Connery (though he was grumpy), shook hands with Martha Stewart and Donald Trump (the latter did not like it), enjoyed the company of Spike Lee. I bumped into Al Sharpton, said “Hi” to Lorne Michaels, walked beside Lenny Kravitz unknowingly until someone asked for his autograph. 

I ate at Delmonico’s, Tao, Barolo (now gone), P.J. Clarke’s, Balthazar, The Palm Too, and Veselka’s. The latter appealed to my Ukrainian roots but not my waistline. I loved Chinatown…I don’t remember Chinese restaurant names, I am drawn by what hangs in the windows. It is something about dumplings though, every culture has them. I could live off of perogies and dim sum. It would probably be a short life.

Often, after a long day of promoting needs over wants, I would patronize long buffets at the larger bodegas (New Yorkers know what I mean). There were also long, ritualistic visits to bookstores (The Strand!) and big jaunts around Central Park. I walked its circumference hundreds of times. I always wanted to do The Great Saunter, a 32-mile walk around Manhattan’s shoreline, but it never worked out. Maybe one day.

I religiously updated a Word document for my Canadian friends, colleagues and family on where to stay, do, and eat in Manhattan. And I know, my experiences only lightly brushed the surface of what was on offer.

For a commuting Canuck, I had a lot of firsts on the island. Getting robbed at an ATM (so New York!), being ignored when asking for directions, getting told to “fuck off” when asking for directions, being afraid to enter the subway, loving the “hello’s” in Central Park, thinking I was getting a deal from an electronics shop. My favourite though came when I happened to spend the weekend. On Sundays, I rose early and bought the New York Times in Times Square, however, not all of it was printed. I would pay the full amount for half the sections, the vendor promising that when I returned later, I would get the rest of the paper. And I did. 

Wow, I digress. I am having a New York ten minutes. Let’s get back to Cheever’s 100th birthday, had he lived (he died in 1982). It was May 27th, 2012. I had bought a $27 ticket to attend. And was weirdly nervous. Age 47 at the time, just to give you some lifecycle context. I was not unaccustomed to events of scale and importance but felt definitely like someone who sneaked in under canvas to the big top. 

The event was quite simple. It was held at the 92nd Street Y, we all sat on folding metal chairs, and the only libation was coffee in Styrofoam. Speakers included his children, biographer Blake Bailey, and novelists Michael Chabon and Allan Gurganus. I had read Bailey’s book and loved it. Loved too, that Bailey wrote Richard Yates’ biography. His telling of a drunken intersection in both writers’ lives that appears in both biographies is probably only recognized by a handful. Or, so I would like to think.

Bailey has claimed that Cheever “would have loved” the television series, Mad Men. Especially since Don and Betty once lived in a house on Bullet Park Road, a sly reference to Cheever’s 1969 novel Bullet Park. I love all of this because, my first day on the job with that ad agency, had me reviewing how we showed up in Mad Men. We were treated nicely unlike McCann, Ogilvy, Leo Burnett and other agencies.

Prior to the celebration, I dined at a nearby Italian restaurant. Several times I scanned my ticket to ensure right place, day and time. At the next table, a father of about 40 with a daughter about 13 talked about attending the same event. He did a great, but failing, attempt at preparing her for the evening’s festivities. She was a good sport. She smiled for her dad and gave support. I was a ghost of an uncle, two steps away, one who would have loved to help illuminate her on all things Cheever. Could you imagine if I butted in and started talking? I would have been a weird New York guy!

Why did I attend? Why the reverence? Perhaps, it is a literature-attention-deficit-syndrome. A short story is more appealing to me than novels. Cheever excelled at the short story. And he resonated in his time with his plots that shine a light on the underbelly of the American dream. “Nobody depicts that particular sort of malaise better than Cheever,” Bailey said of the author. Time magazine put him on the cover in 1964, branding him “Ovid in Ossining.” His work still works today, a precise tuning fork still reverberating.

In retrospect, he appeared entirely successful. That was not the case, as mentioned by his daughter at the Y that evening, he often had trouble getting published. Faking it until he made it. Yet, Susan would go onto say, despite his stress, “We were laughing all the time. My father was one of the funniest men in the world.”

I had an immediate connection with everyone in the too-bright room and the too-harsh seats. People were head-nodding to all that was said. The speakers were excellent. All respectful with depth and whimsy. The memorial seemed over before we even had a chance to warm the chairs. I wanted Michael Chabon to read every one of Cheever’s short stories, not only the mysterious, The Enormous Radio

At the end, we all stood awkwardly. There was some general milling about. I wanted to meet Susan Cheever. That was not meant to be. This modest event was local, real. I hoped we could all end up in The Oyster Bar. A gin gimlet would have been more appropriate for John Cheever than coffee.

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