First posted on NBCC Reads (October 29, 2013)
So many of the finest works of the last 38 years have been nominated for the NBCC book awards that itâ€™s almost impossible to choose a single title. Many of the best did not finally win the award, including Irving Howeâ€™s seminal World of Our Fathers, Norman Mailerâ€™s remarkable nonfiction novel The Executionerâ€™s Song, J. M. Coetzeeâ€™s best novel, Disgrace, Marshall Bermanâ€™s irresistible study of modernism, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Paul Zweigâ€™s unsurpassed biography of Whitman, and Wayne Koestenbaumâ€™s delicious meditation on gay men and opera, The Queenâ€™s Throat, to name just a few. Among those that did win the award, my favorites, singled out almost at random, include Ian McEwanâ€™s Atonement, Joseph Frankâ€™s definitive biography of Dostoevsky, perhaps Philip Rothâ€™s best novel, The Counterlife, C. K. Williamsâ€™s collection of poems, Flesh and Blood, Marilynne Robinsonâ€™s poignantly intelligent Gilead, and two enduring collections of essays, Joseph Brodskyâ€™s Less Than One and Gary Giddinsâ€™s Visions of Jazz. But faced with the impossible demand to select only one title, Iâ€™d have to plump for The Stories of John Cheever.
First of all the stories, one after another, are simply wonderful – beautifully shaped, seductively written – the evolving arc of a whole career, brought together with perfect tact. A good dozen of them are among the outstanding stories of the postwar years – quite a batting average. Then too, the book came out at a low ebb of Cheeverâ€™s career: his writing had changed, The New Yorker, long his literary home, had begun turning down his work, which had nevertheless been typed, quite wrongly, as a certain kind of New Yorker story, teacup tragedies about predictable material – the genteel, gentile middle class, the terminally boring life of the suburbs – in a predictable tone of bland, well-mannered civility. Also, Cheeverâ€™s reception had turned sour; his edgiest novel, Falconer, had hardly been understood by reviewers, let alone welcomed. But reading the stories en masse overturned the stereotypes about him and his work, which now looked much darker and more daring than anyone had realized. There was a dawning sense of his conflicted, surprisingly tormented nature, which would be amply confirmed by the posthumous publication of his journals. Finally, there was the man himself, who charmed the pants off everyone as he accepted the award. I can still recall the wicked grin on his face, along with that wry New England tone of voice, when he said that he was so used to presenting awards to his friend Saul Bellow (whom he hugely admired) that he never expected to take one home himself. It was a performance, one of the most winning Iâ€™ve seen, but it was also heartfelt, a long overdue recognition that had to be the best reason for handing out these awards in the first place.