I first read a John Cheever story in college, “The Country Husband” which remains as funny and weird as possible. I might have learned who Cheever was in the same way as a lot of people, through his weird side-jokes in Seinfeld. But I only can confirm that after the fact.
Anyway, even hearing John Cheever read a story is to literally hear the old New England patrician 20th century voice come out with incisive criticism of a world that is clearly fading out. Even Cheever says as much in his introduction written in 1979 when this book was collected. His short stories are clearly his most important canvas, as I tend to find his novels, like say Donald Barthelme, always feels like they’re “doing something” rather than being a novel, if that makes sense.
“The Country Husband” is still among my favorites in this collection, but I have a real soft spot for the opening story “Goodbye My Brother” where we watch an increasingly middle-aged family of siblings dealing with the family’s beach house, which is literally crumbling into the sea. Especially knowing that this is a relatively early Cheever story (the collection is ostensibly in chronological order with the very stories not included) seems prescient not only as Cheever looks to the future of the culture he occupies, but also at his own place within it.
These are stories about families living in the suburbs, with fathers who take trains into the city for work, who drink like fish and smoke like chimneys, and think about what the neighbors think of them. There’s often a much darker cloud over many of the stories, sometimes to near supernatural proportions. The effect of this is closer to, but quite, an irreligious cloud ala Flannery O’Connor’s doom filled stories.