Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cheever: "The Common Day," "The Enormous Radio"


            When Chris Bruce of Germany quoted a bit from John Cheever's "The Death of Justina" and asked whether any of us thought the passage representative of America (see my response at ) and beyond that indicated that he might wish to discuss other short stories from The Stories of John Cheever," I sent for a copy.  The copy I bought from Half.Com was in "as new" condition according to the seller, but when I got it I found loose pages, tears in the cover, folded pages and underlining. 

            After reading "Goodbye, My Brother," I thought I might want a better copy, but then I read "The Common Day," and "The Enormous Radio" and decided to hold off for a while.  My crumbling copy will probably permit one reading, and that might be enough.

            "The Common Day" is a slice of life in the early, or perhaps middle part, of the New-England twentieth century (I can't tell when the story was written, but the collection was published in 1978).  The main character, Jim Brown and his wife are visiting her mother, Mrs. Garrison, at her "big house."  The servants are a strong presence and may very well offend Billy Blogblather's class consciousness except that none of them are put upon or abused.  Agnes Shay is more than commonly devoted to four-year old Carlotta.  And Jim is flattered that Nils Lund, the gardener asks his advice from time to time.  He captures and kills the creature that has been eating Nils' corn.  After Jim finds the "humpback" raccoon in a trap and shoots it, Agnes tells Carlotta that it has gone on a long long trip.  The kitchen and pantry are off limits to any non-servant and  Jim accepts that, but he does stand up to Nils when he verbally attacks Mrs. Garrison:  "I got too much to do.  Move the lilies.  Move the roses.  Cut the grass.  Every day you want something different.  Why is it?  Why are you better than me?  You don't know how to do anything but kill flowers.  I grow the flowers.  You kill them.  If a fuse burns out, you don't know how to do it.  If something leaks, you don't know how to do it.  You kill flowers.  That's all you know how to do.  For seventeen years I wait for you all winter,' he shouted.  'You write me, 'Is it warm?  Are the flowers pretty?'  Then you come.  You sit here.  You drink.  God damn you people.  You killed my wife.  Now you want to kill me.  You --'

            "'Shut up, Nils,' Jim said.

            "Nils turned quickly and retreated across the lawn, so stricken with self-consciousness that he seemed to limp.  None of them spoke, for they had the feeling, after he had disappeared behind the hedge, that he might be hiding there, waiting to hear what they would say. . . "

            While Nils' outburst might correspond to Blogblather's sense of class warfare it seems pretty clear that Nils hasn't lost his job, and while Mrs. Garrison may be temporarily silenced, there is little doubt but that she will go on treating Nils much as she always has.  The warfare at the Garrison house isn't going to draw any blood.

            And again, as with the passage from "The Death of Justina," "The Common Day," may have been common in New England, but not the rest of the country.

            Jim Brown shares a bit of Lawrence's dislike of the natural countryside.  Jim's wife takes him on forays to look at houses they might buy, but he doesn't like any of them.  Jim isn't as obnoxious as Lawrence but he share's Lawrence's preference for the city.

            In the "The Enormous Radio" Jim Westcott buys an enormous ugly radio for his wife.  It turns out that it can pick up the conversations in the other rooms of the apartment building in which they live.  Irene Westcott is depressed by all the conversations that she overhears and demands of Jim assurance that they aren't as mean or degraded as the neighbors she has been listening to.  Jim gives her that assurance but the "holier than thou" attitude she has been assuming finally gets to him:  "'We've got to start cutting down,' Jim said.  'We've got to think of the children.  To be perfectly frank with you, I worry about money a great deal.  I'm not at all sure of the future.  No one is.  If anything should happen to me, there's the insurance, but that wouldn't go very far today.  I've worked awfully hard to give you and the children a comfortable life,' he said bitterly.  'I don't like to see all my energies, all of my youth, wasted in fur coats and radios and slip covers and --'

            "'Please, Jim,' she said.  'Please.  They'll hear us.'

            "'Who'll hear us?  Emma can't hear us.'

            "'The radio.'

            "Oh, I'm sick!' he shouted.  'I'm sick to death of your apprehensiveness.  The radio can't hear us.  Nobody can hear us.  And what if they can hear us?  Who cares?'

            "Irene got up from the table and went into the living room.  Jim went to the door and shouted at her from there.  'Why are you so Christly all of a sudden?  What's turned you overnight into a convent girl?  You stole your mother's jewelry before they probated her will.  You never gave your sister a cent of that money that was intended for her -- not even when she needed it.  You made Grace Howland's life miserable, and where was all your piety and your virtue when you went to that abortionist?  I'll never forget how cool you were.  You packed your bag and went off to have that child murdered as if you were going to Nassau.  If you'd had any reasons, if you'd had any good reasons --'

            "Irene stood for a minute before the hideous cabinet, disgraced and sickened, but she held her hand on the switch before she extinguished the music and the voices, hoping that the instrument might speak to her kindly, that the instrument might speak to her kindly, that she might hear the Sweeney's nurse.  Jim continued to shout at her from the door.  The voice on the radio was suave and noncommittal.  'An early-morning railroad disaster in Tokyo,' the loudspeaker said, 'killed twenty-nine people.  A fire in a Catholic hospital near Buffalo for the care of blind children was extinguished early this morning by nuns.  The temperature is forty-seven.  The humidity is eighty-nine.'"

            Irene was dismayed to learn the mean secrets of her neighbors, but her response was to rationalize her own faults and believe she wasn't as mean as they were.  Her husband might have reassured her, but two things conspire against that, their shortness of money and her saintly attitude.  She isn't a saint, he reminds her, and he describes some of her sins.  And, pathetically, she turns to the radio seeking a kind word. 

            In these modern times we would refer to most movies, TV shows and genre fiction as "escape" materials.  We live hard, tense, lives; so when we get home from work we seek something light weight to take our minds off our troubles.  This isn't what Irene is doing.  She is doing something very like what Lawrence was doing in "Goodbye, My Brother."  Lawrence was more self-assured.  He could say what the Pharisees did, "thank god I am not like these."  But Irene couldn't say that.  Instead she sought reassurance from her husband: we are not like these others, are we?"  And her husband responds that she is just like them if not worse. 

            Why did "Goodbye my brother" cause me to start looking for a better copy of Cheever's stories but "The Common Day," and "The Enormous Radio" put that on hold?  I was interested in the narrator in "Goodbye my brother" but not in any of the characters in the other two stories.  The narrator is a passionate fellow who tries to draw his brother Lawrence back into the family, and when Lawrence resists hits him on the back of the head with a piece of tree-root.  Later he can stand enjoying his wife and sister swimming in from the sea.  Jim Brown on the other hand has mastered the art of saying the right thing.  He lets his wife think he might one day buy a piece of property in the country, but he has no intention of doing so.  And "The Enormous Radio" reminds me of the shabbiness of Babbitt and Main Street -- a kind of naturalism I don't find interesting.  Husbands do occasionally shout at their wives in that manner, but if one of my neighbors was doing that, I'd close the window rather than try to hear what they was being said; and I am no more interested in hearing Cheever describe such an incidence.





No comments: