Though these stories deal with bright, prosperous, ostensibly happy people, a cold wind blows through them. Age, illness, financial embarrassment, sex, alcohol, death--all of these threaten his suburban Eden. (Is it himself Cheever is mocking in his ironic "The Worm in the Apple"? "Everyone in the community with wandering hands had given them both a try but they had been put off. What was the source of this constancy? Were they frightened? Were they prudish? Were they monogamous? What was at the bottom of this appearance of happiness?") Inanimate objects carry the residue of their past owners' unhappiness and cruelty ("Seaside Houses," "The Lowboy"); expatriates long for but cannot quite find their way home ("The Woman Without A Country," "Boy in Rome"); children vanish or turn out badly (too many stories to count).
All of this is conveyed in prose both graceful and tender. No one is better than Cheever at describing a character's appearance: "He was a cheerful, heavy man with a round face that looked exactly like a pudding. Everyone was glad to see him, as one is glad to see, at the end of a meal, the appearance of a bland, fragrant, and nourishing dish made of fresh eggs, nutmeg, and country cream." Given his uncanny eye (and ear) for realistic description, it's easy to forget how experimental Cheever could be. His later stories pioneered authorial intrusions in the best postmodern style, and from the beginning, he wrote what would much later be called magical realism. (Think of the sinister broadcasts in "The Enormous Radio," or the phantom love interest in "The Chimera.") A literary event at its publication and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, The Stories of John Cheever remains a stunning and enormously influential book. --Mary Park