John Cheever's Early Writings Show His Path From Novice to Master

AT the time of his death in 1982 at the age of 70, John Cheever's reputation rested on a handful of uneven but impressive novels and dozens of superb short stories, many of which had graced the pages of The New Yorker in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Polished, ironic, and sophisticated, Cheever's most distinctive stories were suburban fairy-tales blending sly social satire with an ability to view the follies, joys, and sorrows of upper-middle-class life from a kind of wistful, tenderly cosmic perspective.

In the years following his death, the image of this urbane chronicler of suburbia was soon tarnished by lurid revelations about his alcoholism, extra-marital affairs with both sexes, mental instability, and other problems, which were made public in his daughter Susan Cheever's memoir ``Home Before Dark,'' and in the editions of his letters and journals edited by his son Ben Cheever. (Both have authored fiction.)

The Cheevers were also involved in a court case seeking to prevent the publication in book form of John Cheever's lesser known, previously uncollected stories on the grounds that renewed attention to the purportedly weaker efforts of his apprentice years might injure his posthumous reputation.

Granted the right to select which previously uncollected stories to include in this collection, however, the Cheever family chose to withhold all copyrighted material, leaving Academy Chicago free only to publish those stories that were already in the public domain, unprotected by copyright: In short, the very same kind of apprentice work they had claimed might detract from John Cheever's literary stature.

The 13 stories assembled in this collection, dating from the 1930s and 1940s, provide valuable glimpses of the writer moving toward the discovery of his true voice. They also serve as intriguing slices of social history.

As George Hunt discusses in his introduction, Cheever - like so many writers of the period - was influenced by Hemingway, and it took time for him to blend Hemingway's directness with his own subtler way of looking at and describing reality. And, as editor Franklin Dennis notes, the contrast between the affluent world of Cheever's postwar New Yorker fiction and the marginal, impoverished, uncertain lives depicted in these earlier stories will broaden his readers' conception of Cheever's scope.

Some of these early stories appeared in small, obscure journals like The Left and Pagany. Some of the later ones were published in high-paying, large-circulation magazines like Collier's and Cosmopolitan. Many appeared in The New Republic, which in those years - the 1930s - was so far to the left of its current political position as to have been widely regarded as a Stalinist organ.

Many of these stories reveal a young writer reacting to the apparent breakdown of the capitalist system. The earliest, ``Fall River,'' sketches a once-prosperous milltown brought to a standstill. ``The Autobiography of a Drummer,'' published four years later, in 1935, is told through the eyes of a man in his 60s, a once-successful traveling salesman who recalls his rise to prosperity and the subsequent loss of his living and way of life: ``We have been forgotten like old telephone books and almanacs and gas-lights and those big yellow houses with cornices and cupolas that they used to build,'' he sadly reflects.

In another story, ``In Passing,'' published in The Atlantic Monthly a year later, Cheever offers a more complex vision, contrasting the dedicated, slightly chilling idealism of a young Communist Party organizer with the Micawberesque attitude of the narrator's own formerly well-heeled family teetering on the abyss of bankruptcy while blindly believing something will turn up to save them.

The narrator first meets the Communist organizer at a racetrack resort town: Here, and in later stories, the ethos of gambling seems to embody the flaws and the attractions of capitalism. The single-minded Communist may see some things more clearly than the inveterate gambler, but the dream of a lucky break seems more in keeping with ordinary human nature - or does in Cheever's eyes, at least.

Racetracks and gambling figure in three more stories (all published in Collier's): In ``His Young Wife,'' a dashing gambler is unmasked to be what is now called an addictive personality, as incapable of real love as of sound judgment. In ``Saratoga,'' two adult children of gamblers try to escape the past to make a life together. But their shared life may involve betting after all. Still more indulgent toward this vice is ``The Man She Loved,'' featuring a sentimental ending in which a gambler wins out over his more respectable rival.

To his contemporaries, Cheever's gamblers may have seemed embodiments of the free spirit. Current-day readers will more likely be struck by the addictive quality of their behavior. Still, these stories display genuine glints of the Cheever sparkle.

More to modern tastes, perhaps, are three tales of resourceful women doing their best to cope in a world that treats neither women nor working people with respect: ``Bayonne'' is a New Jersey-born waitress afraid of being replaced by a younger woman; ``The Princess,'' a young dancer trying to emerge from the tacky chorus-line into art; and ``The Teaser,'' an aging stripper unceremoniously dumped from a traveling roadshow.

The final story, ``The Opportunity,'' published in 1949, is a wry look at the uneasy relationship between a stagestruck adolescent girl and her concerned mother, who is relieved and surprised to discover that her daughter is smarter than she seems.

Eminently readable in and of themselves, these early stories afford a vivid and interesting picture of a writer in transition, yet even at the outset of his career, possessed of some of the gifts that would make his best work so memorable.

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