Many aspiring novelists learn their craft by first writing short stories. This makes oodles of sense: the character’s goal is more immediate, its complications are fewer, and the supporting cast is more manageable. With the end never far from sight, its layers are easier to interweave. I’ve so believed in this logic that, over the past twenty years, I’ve accumulated way too many short story collections.
Why “too many”? Because despite my best intentions, I don’t read them. It goes something like this: I’ll read one story, say something to myself like “huh,” then look at the clock. And then I’ll think, “Damn, I could be forty-five minutes into a novel by now.”
This is a shameful admission, but what can I say—that’s how much I love the long form.
Only one collection stayed on my nightstand past the typical one-story cut: The Stories of John Cheever.
The collection came to me as part of a thoughtful Christmas gift. After hearing that my writing-heavy, high-school-English track had not introduced me to many of the must-read classics, my stepson, himself a high-school teacher, gifted me a bundle—Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Updike’s Rabbit, Run—and among them was the surprise addition of the Cheever collection.
Cheever had already been gone from this world a good twenty years before I discovered him (just think on that a moment—wouldn’t you love to leave such a legacy?), but I immediately sensed that the man was telling stories from my life.
This at once both pissed off and excited me.
“Goodbye, My Brother”
I adore this story, which begins:
We are a family who has always been very close in spirit. Our father was drowned in a sailing accident when we were young, and our mother has always stressed the fact that our familial relationships have a kind of permanence that we will never meet with again.
The narrator’s family has four children, one of whom is a black sheep, but despite their differences, an inexorable pull brings them back together at the same vacation spot each year. In the year of the story, push comes to shove.
My family had five children, “black sheep” being more of a floating determination, but despite our differences, an inexorable pull still brings us back together at the same vacation spot each year. Push came to shove at any number of those gatherings. I’m novelizing a slant on that premise now.
“O City of Broken Dreams”
This tale of a Midwestern family spending their last dime on train tickets to New York City while pursuing their dream of selling the husband’s play, and finding that nothing in the city is as they thought it would be, could have been ripped from my family’s life. Several times over. Until I’d read Cheever, I’d never before realized such a story’s inherent and relatable drama. [Read more…]