Guest Observation: John Cheever

For my birthday, I got a $50 gift card to a local bookstore. I just used it. I got Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” even though I wasn’t crazy about the last thing I read of his (“All the Pretty Horses.” My complaint? I simply didn’t care for the prose, which seemed seemed dense and layered on and self-consciously flowery with no particular purpose. There’s no accounting for taste, and so on.) I also got a Library of America collection of John Cheever’s stories and esays. I haven’t read much by Cheever, but what I’ve read I’ve loved. Sometime in the last year or so, we heard the story “Goodbye, My Brother” featured on the dependably absorbing “Selected Shorts,” which plays here Saturday night on NPR. The story is the first in the collection. I imagine this is working on more than one level. Superficially, it’s the story of a brother who has set his face against the rest of his family and perhaps all of humanity, and the irritation, anguish, and rage he provokes. On another level, let’s just say there’s a lot of references to the ancient Greeks, their gods and their demigods; that bears further consideration. In any case, here’s the conclusion of the story:

“They left for the mainland the next morning, taking the six-o’clock boat. Mother got up to say goodbye, but she was the only one, and it is a harsh and an easy scene to imagine—the matriarch and the changeling, looking at each other with a dismay that would seem like the powers of love reversed. I heard the children’s voices and the car go down the drive, and I got up and went to the window, and what a morning that was! Jesus, what a morning! The wind was northerly. The air was clear. In the early heat, the roses in the garden smelled like strawberry jam. While I was dressing, I heard the boat whistle, first the warning signal and then the double blast, and I could see the good people on the top deck drinking coffee out of fragile paper cups, and Lawrence at the bow, saying to the sea, “Thalassa, thalassa,”* while his timid and unhappy children watched the creation from the encirclement of their mother’s arms. The buoys would toll mournfully for Lawrence, and while the grace of the light would make it an exertion not to throw out your arms and swear exultantly, Lawrence’s eyes would trace the black sea as if fell astern; he would think of the bottom, dark and strange, where full fathom five our father lies.

“Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming – Diana and Helen – and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”

*Thalassa is Greek for “the sea.”