"What fascination there is in reading these 13 stories..." — New York Times
"Preview of genius in early Cheever." — USA Today
"A book well worth having..." — Publishers Weekly
"A fascinating example of one writer's beginning." — Library Journal
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The stories in this collection are ones that Cheever wrote in the 1930s and 1940s. There are 13 total, 11 of which are not available anywhere else, including the new Library of America edition. Interest in Cheever's work has been renewed with the publication of a new biography, John Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey. Readers of Cheever, both new and old, will be fascinated by this essential collection.
"Preview of genius in early Cheever." — USA Today
"A book well worth having..." — Publishers Weekly
"A fascinating example of one writer's beginning." — Library Journal
People had known it for two years but it was obvious in the winter. The mills had stopped and the great wheels were still against the ceilings. The looms blocked off the floor like discarded machinery in an old opera house. On the floors and on the beams and on the brilliant flanks of steel the mist of the web was covered with dust like old snow.
The house we lived in was on a steep hill and we could look down into the salt marshes and the high gray river moving into the sea. It was winter but there had been no snow and for a whole season the roads were dusty and the sky was heavy and the trees had dropped their leaves for the winter. But the sky remained heavy and the roads were dusty for as long as three weeks and when the spring came it was hard to remember the snow because there had been so little.
The dark city grew up from the river and all winter the spires of the wooden church were held up against the sky like enormous fingers. From our window we could see the piles of the hill out of the river and the dirty houses blown with smoke and blousy with sunlight. We had known it for almost a year now and the people had spoken of a dry winter. It was already spring. The full river moved into the ocean. The great wheels of the machinery were still waiting against the ceiling. The round stacks shot out into the sky vacant without the dark plumes of smoke.
Our room was on the fourth floor of a high brick house. A great many people could not pay their rent and the landlady made the silence miserable with her complaints. There was a man on the third floor who had a job and who earned ten dollars a week. In the evenings we would see him sitting on the edge of his bed looking slowly about the empty room. The landlady would weep when she saw him and tell him that she must eat and that he must pay his rent. That he would have to pay his rent. The man's face was square and his hair was straight like plain wood. You will have to pay the rent, the landlady shouted on the small landing outside of his door. He looked at her and closed the door gently. I will pay you the rent next week. His mind was confused with the impossibility of his debt. With the broken face of the landlady shouting for her rent.
We had not paid our rent for three weeks but it was different when there were two people. We had sent our books away in big boxes a month ago. These were things that we did not want to do but even in this building of steep brick the people were not the same. The landlady would have taken our books and our typewriter and sold them. Cigarettes were not safe if you left them on the table for a minute.
An old man downstairs had been out of the mill for six months now. At first he could not stand the leisure and he was up every morning going across the river to the city looking for work. When he found that there was no work he was still up every morning walking over the city all day and coming back across the great river at night talking to the men who did work. He had been that way for two months and then he fell and hurt his leg. When his leg was better he had lost all his desire to walk. He only left his room to buy food and to return and eat it. You could see that when the wheels began to turn and the long bands quivered with the sharp motion he would not go back. He was living in his room, going out to buy food and coming back again. No one knew what he did in his room all day. You could not hear him move.
People had admitted a dry winter with very little money and no food. It had been this way. The winter had come and gone. The factories were still vacant. The river was moving always but there was no smoke over the city. Half the town was still out of work. The river and the seasons came and went but the machinery was quiet and we did not know when it was going to move again.
In the north there were great empty boats resting in the harbors waiting for a cargo. They were chained away from the docks and they moved back and forth with the currents of the tide. We had seen them in the summer and if we went back in the spring we knew that they would still be there. Enormous piles of steel and glass turning on the tide and waiting for a cargo. It would not be this spring or perhaps it would not be even in the summer. The boats would still wait on the harbor resting with one light in the dark warm evenings.
If people had mentioned and realized a dry winter they did not talk about the spring. There was no reason why they should mention the spring. The factories were still idle. The boats were vacant in the northern harbors and there was still very little money and no food. In the east the workers had complained and the drums and the pickets and the sound of their complaint in the fine rain was like thunder beneath the hills. The church had stopped it. The church had quieted it but it had not stopped the thunder. The workers were still dissatisfied and in the fine rain they remembered their complaint and the sound of their drums. There were few who could forget the sound of the Internationale and although in the east the wheels were moving again they were moving under a stranger master. They were waiting for hands that knew them and the ways to control their levers.
From our window we could see the spring come because we had a great deal of time. At first it was the delicate air and the sweet stink of the oil vats from across the river. Then the trees were dusty with new buds and the old gardens were pushed away and the river was carrying sticks of bright wood and waste that had come down in the thaw. The sky was heavy like flesh and there was no doubt about the spring. We could see it clearly in the hills that were thawing and the sore pain of the broken earth. And yet the wheels were not moving and the looms were still like nervous dancers and there were very few people who wanted to talk about the spring because of these things.
In Boston the wealthy people were nervous. It was spring but it would make no difference. They were terrified at the possibility of having to live through another season. Of having struggled through the winter searching for the pleasures of previous winters. In Boston the wealthy people were conditioned like old gentlemen. The nervous wreckage of a dead race. It was wrong to accuse them of injustice. They could not accustom themselves to the new necessities. They were nervously fumbling, handling enormous conditions that had been thrust into their hands. And the other people were waiting for them to drop these things. Perhaps the machines would start again by the summer but they would still be under foreign control. Perhaps they would go on for a whole year while there was unrest like thunder under the hills. There would be something. Nobody who had seen the things come and the things go could doubt that. We were watching the spring pass like a great tide up the river and down over the hills.
On Sunday Paul came in his new shiny car and took us out to the farm. Paul was prosperous and his business was doing well. He showed us the speed of his car and the splendid little wheels that turned beneath the hood. Then we went down the long planes of the country road and circled the enormous gravel driveway. The large white farmhouse with the river on its left and the orchards running to the river was the same. Mani came to the door in a long pale dress and took us out to her flower garden. There were firm yellow sprouts breaking through the hard earth. Mani swore a little and said that it was spring. The sky was heavy. The birds were crossing it like a high dome. At the end of the river the mills were still and the boats were shifting on the tide waiting for a cargo. Mani said that it was spring again and stamped her cigarette out on the edge of the garden. It is spring again, Mani said.
The Left: A Quarterly Review of Radical and Experimental Art
Autumn, 1931CHAPTER 2
It had rained hard early in August so the leaves were off all the trees. In the sunlight the hills were like scorched pastry and when there was no sun the meadows were gray and the trees were black and the clean sky parted in firm lines down onto the smooth horizon. Most of the guests had gone away but some of the guests remained.
In the evening Richard and Fred walked down to the formal pond in the sand pit and watched the swans drift in the wind. Richard woke early every morning and looked at the hills. Then he shook off his pyjamas and caught his body swinging past the glass panes in the small window. His body was a lined angular whiteness passing the small panes in the window when he was not looking.
Fred did not get up until noon and the sun was hot on the roofs or the rain had stopped and the foliage was brittle with water. The coals in the small hearth were black and he had to heat his coffee. Amy told him that if he would come down sooner he would not have to drink cold coffee. Amy ran her eyes down the length of red carpet and laughed like a gramophone. Some of the guests were walking up and down the verandah wondering if it were going to rain, and the ducks came out of the gray shed and went to the small pool in the bottom of the sand pit.
A lady with a staff of black hair pulled back from her forehead and broken over the round of her skull spent most of the afternoons and a great many of the evenings eating sandwiches and telling everyone how beautiful Switzerland was.
"You have never really seen the fields I have. You do not know what a flowered meadow is. You have never walked into fields that were blue and white and yellow and every flower as perfect as the nipples on your breast. Curved just so, colored so lightly, and you have never heard the sound of running water. Oh no, you have never heard the sound of running water.
"You have never lived by a little stream that made a sound all day and all night. You do not know what it is to go away and not hear the little stream any more. It is like silence to you. Yes, it is like silence to you.
"And the stars? No. You do not know what stars are like. You have never been near enough to the stars to see the long streaming continuation of one line into another. You have never been so high that from your verandah the birds were like level wheels in the meadow and the meadows like patches of juniper. Oh no. You do not know. Enormous meadows like mere patches of juniper up on the hillside where there are no trees.
"And perhaps you have lived so high on a hill that the mist came up from the patched meadows like a pitted fruit and gathered in circles and little whirlpools? You have never seen a thick mist stream through the doorway and flatten on the ceiling." She would tap her foot on the flowered linoleum and lift up the corner of a sandwich. "You do not know how enormous things can be and I am afraid that you will never know."
Fred and Richard went for walks together in the hills and often stayed all day. They took their books and sandwiches and sometimes bread and cheese and bad wine. They bent their backs over the round of the hill and watched the clouds and, when there were no clouds, the trees break along the wind. There was no need of speaking. A gramophone was a great responsibility. Resting on their backs against the flank of a broken hill they instinctively felt that the silence was going to lapse into the scratching of a gramophone needle and someone would have to crank the machine. There was an enormous responsibility in choosing one side or another of the disk.
Sitting on the top of the hill they could see Amy lean from the cross windows and shout at the cows. The foliage was dead and the flagpole had been taken down because of the strong wind. In the long vacant drawing room the stiff twigs of the bridal veil* pulled and scuttled over the clean glass.
On the other side they could see hills dropping onto hills dropping into the ocean. They could see Chestnut Hill and Break Hill ram one another and push the small scrub pines down over the beach. In the empty weather when there was no sun they could hear the ocean make a great noise on the rocks and speculate on the color and the formation of the waves. Often they did not know how they spent whole days in the hills lying on the sharp grass wondering about one another.
Amy said the Russian lady with the broken hair had never been to Switzerland but that she had seen a great many milk chocolate advertisements. Amy said that the Russian lady with the vacant eyes was simply waiting for her son to come from a college out west and take her back to Cambridge. People began to wonder if she even had a son who was coming from out of the west to take her back to Cambridge. She sat in her black brocade pyjamas on the verandah and described the milk chocolate advertisements and everyone listened to her because she was so very, very beautiful.
In the delicate light of the early evening Fred and Richard came down from out of the hills and said good afternoon to everyone. Fred traced a white iris with the toe of his boot on the flowered linoleum. Richard bent over the whitewashed railing and said how beautiful everything was. Amy was in the corner talking to Jack and asking him not to bring down any more gin because she didn't like to start drinking down here because down here it was not like in the city and in the city people could not stand the pace and it was all right to drink but down here there was a pace that people could adjust themselves to and there was no need of drinking and it was going to be one place where sensitive people could come and stand the realization of being sober.
When Ruth played the piano it was very nice also and Fred and Richard dusted the whitewash from their trousers and stood close to one another listening to the music roll out of the doorway and heave over the stubble of unkempt lawn. Because the leafless trees made it look much later in the season than it really was, the awning had been taken down from the verandah and the black metal skeleton shot off the roof and hung between the floor and the railing like a vacant elbow. Such muscle in the awning frame Ruth would say and drag her fingers over the dry ivory like little white rakes.
Fred and Richard felt that a clock was runningdown somewhere and that someone would have to wind up the clock in a little while. Amy sat on the blue wooden balcony with Jack and talked about how fine and lovely everything had been before people started to go to the city and get drunk.
"People who used to come out here eight years ago and find the place restful now want to get drunk after their first meal. They find the tempo of nature almost more unbearable than the tempo of New York. Instead of finding rest in the country they become nervous wrecks. I do not understand it, no I do not understand it."
When Richard undressed, his body was warm like a well-lit room and he spent a lot of time jumping up and down before the oval mirror. He could hear Fred walking down the corridor in his leather slippers and he crossed his legs and lit a cigarette. Fred came in and said good night and went away again. Richard noticed sharp colors, brilliant shadows and the manner in which the boards were placed in the floor. He remembered a great many numbered forms and objects with names on them so that he could tell them that it was half past eleven when the Huntington Avenue trolley car crashed into the one roaring down Massachusetts Avenue in the direction of the river. In this way he went to sleep and often when he dressed in the morning it was raining and the window was running with the ugly shapes of flat water.
Ruth got a letter from her brother at the farm saying that he would have to close up because the deer had destroyed whole sections of his orchard. Fred thought it was all very beautiful with the slender arched animals eating the delicate boughs and Amy put on an evening gown and came down to supper after everyone had been working all day.
There were so few guests now that they could all be seated in the dining room and Amy carved the roast at the table. Everyone talked and the meat fell away under the knife. In the dining room the curtains had not been hung yet but someone had started to put back the pictures on the yellow plaster. Amy asked Richard if he would have more meat and looked out of the window. It would be a month now and the dry snows would be coming in from the frozen harbor. Then she remembered that it was not as late as she thought it was but that the rain had driven the leaves from the trees and it was really only the beginning of the autumn.
Excerpted from Fall River and Other Uncollected Stories by John Cheever, Franklin H. Dennis. Copyright © 1994 Academy Chicago Publishers. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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John Cheever, best known for his short stories dealing with upper-middle-class suburban life, was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1912. Cheever published his first short story at the age of seventeen. He was the recipient of a 1951 Guggenheim Fellowship and winner of a National Book Award for The Wapshot Chronicle in 1958, the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Stories of John Cheever, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and an American Book Award. He died in 1982, at the age of seventy.
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