Who’s Your Daddy? Cheever or Barthelme.

By BookNerd April 1, 2009

Since the new biographies of short story legends John Cheever and Donald Barthelme hit the New York Times Book Review (Cheever: A Life on March 15 and Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme on March 22), I’ve been curious to give their stories another try.  

Previously, I had sort of grouped these two writers in the same general category: Dudes I was told I had to read when I was learning how to write short fiction, but who I never really got into. 


Cheever was very East Coast suburban and I always saw myself as adamantly Western. If I was in the mood for Chekhovian stories with traditional narrative structure, I'd read Carver. Generally, though, I preferred rougher, quirkier fiction with pop-culture galore and unbridled narrative experiments.  

So it seems like I would have been the perfect reader for Barthelme, a Texan who published his first short stories in the early sixties, post-Beat ramping into post-Modernism. By the time Barthelme was recommended to me, though, his influence was everywhere. Writers like David Foster Wallace and George Saunders had already taken prose experimentation, hyper-realism, and irony to another level. Barthelme read (unfairly, I admit!) like most of the writers showing up in McSweeney's. So, his fiction seemed superfluous, like I came to it too late to learn anything.  

I figured now was as good a time as ever to see if I could give these dynamos of short fiction a fresh read, and see if I could declare an indisputable father of the modern American short story.  

I started with Cheever's "Goodbye, My Brother," originally published in The New Yorker in 1951. It has all the upper class seaside backgammon and tennis matches that I expected, but I underestimated how much I would enjoy the elegant turns of phrase, the tortured-yet-somehow-charming characters, and the ever-present cocktails. It has a dark, humorous edge that I’d never recognized in Cheever and one of  the most satisfying endings I've ever read. (Apparently, he composed this ending aloud, yelling in front of an apartment building and causing the doorman to say, “You’re talking to yourself, Mr. Cheever.”)  

I was excited to finally have an excuse to read "The Swimmer" because people have been telling me for years that this is the best short story ever written. Of course, this always biased me against it, because, clearly, Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" is the best short story ever written, at least in the U.S. So I went into it with pre-emptive Flan-attitude. Ruling: Entertaining? Check. Influential? Definitely. Holds up after 48 years? Totally. Good lord, and those sentences! It was probably even a tiny bit experimental for its time.  

Of course, the Barthelme stories written around the same time as “The Swimmer” took experimentation to a whole new level. "Me and Mrs. Mandable," a quirky, but surprisingly affecting story, shows a 35-year-old man who goes back to school as an 11-year-old who wants to sleep with his teacher. Then there was "For I’m the Boy" about (hmm… what’s this about?) some guys in a car and a movie house incident with Tuesday Weld. It’s fractured, puzzle-like, and a little spooky. (Lorrie Moore describes his work perfectly in her recent New York Review of Books piece, if you want to get a better idea.) 

So, who’s the father of the modern American short story? Who do I want to keep reading? 

I enjoyed re-reading Barthelme. He’s impish, urban, interdisciplinary, and spectacularly fun. It’s hard to disagree with Colm Toibin’s assertion (from the Times review): 
“For making it new and strange, he is a heroic figure in modern literature. And, even though fashions have changed and he no longer sits center stage, he remains an important influence, especially in the United States.”

Despite that, I'm picking Cheever.  

Cheever himself said of one of Barthelme’s stories (from Harper’s, April 2009): 
"Blooey. Its like the last act in vaudeville and anyhow it seems to me that I did it fifteen years ago.” 

It's really not fair: Cheever is more renowned, more mainstream, and there's been more written about him. Barthelme pushed the form further. But Cheever came first. And, the truth is, after years of cheeky irony, clever narrative meanderings, and a barrage of references to 1960s television, Beckett, Pepsi-Cola, and the like, I'm ready to be transported to that place Cheever describes in the introduction to his award-winning story collection 
"…a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like ‘the Cleveland Chicken, sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are."
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