One-Minute Book Reviews

April 15, 2007

‘The Stories of John Cheever,’ a Titan Among Past Winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Fiction,Literature,Reading,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:12 pm

Remembering one of the great recipients of the awards to be announced today

The winners of the 2007 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced this afternoon, including the awards for five categories of books. And if the historical pattern holds, in a decade or two — if not by the end of the day tomorrow — some of the recipients will look more like midgets than giants. So before you read latest winners, why not catch up with some of the titans of past lists?

One of my favorites is The Stories of John Cheever, winner of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This masterpiece has all of Cheever’s greatest stories — including “The Swimmer,” “The Enormous Radio” and “The Country Husband” — and others that won deserved praise and bestsellerdom for their author. Many of these tales first appeared in The New Yorker in the 1950s. And as Jonathan Yardley wrote a few years ago in the Washington Post, they “have rivals but no superiors in the national literature”: “Though many gifted writers wrote memorably during that decade, four stood apart: Flannery O’Connor, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty and John Cheever.”

One of the signal virtues of The Stories of John Cheever is that Cheever was among the last great American moralists. His characters have a sharp awareness of good and evil that pervades their lives but doesn’t keep them from getting into trouble that, in most of his stories, provides a strong narrative arc. So his work operates on a level that doesn’t exist in the many modern stories that are driven by “anything goes” morality that can devolve into amorality. In the preface to the Stories, Cheever suggests another reason why his work has endured:

“These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like ‘the Cleveland Chicken,’ sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are.”

The book that wins the wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction today may well be the best novel or short story collection of 2006. But no one can know whether another book will surpass it next year. That’s all the more reason to cherish the work of a writer who remains unsurpassed among the chroniclers of his era.

The Stories of John Cheever (Vintage, $17.95, paperback) was first published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1978. The book won, in addition to the Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award and an American Book Award (now National Book Award).

Links: The names of the Pulitzer Prize winners will be announced at 3 p.m. today and posted at 3:15 p.m. at www.pulitzer.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

7 Comments »

  1. Thanks for reminding me – I read John Cheever for the first time last year as part of a year long writing Intensive I did with Natalie Goldberg in Taos. I loved the detail in his stort stories. We read the Susan Cheever memoir, Home Before Dark, in tandem. The juxtaposition was haunting.

    Reading his daughter’s memoir brought to life a different side of Cheever’s life. It’s good to get a sense of the whole of what it sometimes takes from people to write. We all deal with the dark and lonely aspect of writing in different ways. Cheever was a great writer. I’ll look forward to seeing who makes the new Pulitzer list.

    QM

    Comment by quoinmonkey — April 16, 2007 @ 11:37 am | Reply

  2. Great to hear that the Cheever stories are being used in a writing program. That book, though beloved by so many of us, is old enough now that I’d wondered if it was still being taught. Cheever’s son, Ben, also writes. Wonder if any writing programs use books by all three of the writing Cheevers?

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 16, 2007 @ 12:47 pm | Reply

  3. Hmmm. I didn’t know Cheever had a son. So I looked him up after you mentioned him. I found this essay, The Writing Life on the web. It’s from quite a while ago, 1999. But it still has some good things to say:

    “Reading and writing are similar exercises. They both require time, they both require silence. And here’s the tricky part: They both require a surrender of self.

    Plus a book needs a reader and writer both. I like the sound of one hand clapping. I like better the sound of two hands clapping, which has the distinct advantage of being a sound.”

    He seems to have the wit of John Cheever. And by the photo, he looks like him, too. Here’s the link to the full essay:

    The Writing Life
    http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/0499/cheever/essay.html

    Yes, wouldn’t it be engaging to take a writing class where all 3 Cheevers were in attendance?

    QM

    Comment by quoinmonkey — April 17, 2007 @ 10:38 pm | Reply

  4. Oh, as I re-read that last comment, I realized I needed to clarify – by all 3 in attendance, I mean the good graces of their books. Books are the greatest mentors.

    QM

    Comment by quoinmonkey — April 17, 2007 @ 10:40 pm | Reply

  5. That’s a great line — “books are the greatest mentors.” You could develop a whole essay on that subject. I’d bet that almost every writer has at least one book that was his or her mentor. I probably have a half dozen, starting with one shared by a lot of other writers, The Elements of Style.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 18, 2007 @ 7:02 am | Reply

  6. Just a last tidbit – when I was researching a post, I saw the Elements of Style on a 1959 Bestsellers list. It hit a homerun, even in it’s day.

    Comment by QuoinMonkey — May 4, 2007 @ 2:50 am | Reply

  7. And rarely has a book deserved its bestsellerdom more than The Elements of Style. What a great guide for writers!

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — May 4, 2007 @ 9:58 am | Reply


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