“Goodbye, My Brother,” the first story in The Stories of John Cheever, is—among other things—an exercise in the use of POV, and the possibilities inherent to the use of an unreliable narrator.
After setting up the importance of family loyalty, the narrator introduces us to his brother, Lawrence, returning for a visit to the family’s vacation home after a long absence from family affairs, and a longstanding lack of communication. Lawrence: un-liked for his aloofness, his gloominess. Tensions are high as the family reunites, all while Lawrence continues to brood, distancing himself from his family. But much of Lawrence’s inner life is only guessed at by the narrator, so consistently as to be almost obsessive. The narrator is increasingly angry at his brother, for no particular reason, and he often gets angry only after imagining what Lawrence’s feelings and observations would be in any given moment if he were to voice them—never, or at least only rarely, for something Lawrence actually does.
“I suppose Lawrence thought…” he writes, in a number of variations, all of which serve to characterize Lawrence entirely unfairly, the intention of his actions perhaps misread or misinterpreted without him having a chance to defend himself. The POV becomes more and more questionable throughout as we realize the narrator has his own prejudices that he’s working through. And Cheever handles this very delicately, never being too obvious about what he’s showing us but also making sure that it’s there on every page.
The last paragraph of the story, also, is incredibly powerful. As the narrator watches his wife and his sister swimming together in the sea, he wonders again about Lawrence, who by now has gone away:
Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless?
I read this as an indictment of the family, in the context of the sea having been a sign of the past, the shoreline being described as eroding—“a house built at the edge of the cliff on a sinking coastline.” The one who’s failing, of course, is the one who doesn’t notice anything wrong in the world, the one who lives entirely in an imaginary world where everything is rather peachy. There’s a great moment in the middle of the story when the narrator writes about Lawrence:
“I had heard him say, years ago, that we and our friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with the problems of the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was a happier and a simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight was a measure of this irremediable failure.”
Lawrence, as someone who lives in the present—moves around a lot, tries different things—is antithetical to the family’s tendency to ignore problems, such as the mother’s desire to keep patching up the house, planning future reconstruction work even as it very well may be a lost cause (which Lawrence maintains is the truth of it). The narrator is emblematic of this, and even though we’re in his voice for the whole of the story, the theme still works its way in, testament to Cheever’s subtle handling of POV.
“The Enormous Radio” is another story that hides a harsh truth within what is ostensibly a tale about a housewife’s curiosity, and her slow realization that she doesn’t know people as well as she thought—that it’s actually impossible to truly know the people around you. Through the new radio that her husband buys her, she can hear what goes on in her neighbors’ apartments, and it horrifies her. And she thinks that her life isn’t nearly as bad as those people’s—that the problems they face are unique to them, and that she and her husband and children don’t have that kind of darkness lurking just below the surface. But in the final scene, a blowout fight with her husband, she realizes that she doesn’t even know him as well as she thought she did, and that he actually harbors a deep bitterness towards her. The whole notion of surface vs. interior reality is brought out in a dramatic way.
There’s a great bit of dialogue in which she asks her husband: “You love me, don’t you? And we’re not hypercritical or worried about money or dishonest, are we?” To which he answers, “No, darling.” But which question is he answering? Does he actually not love her anymore? (Because his answer to the second question, in truth, is a resounding YES, as we discover in the climactic tantrum.)
Cheever is very successful at letting the true essence of his story bubble up slowly until eventually it’s the only thing you can see—as in “The Swimmer,” a story which slowly devolves from cocktail party whimsy (full of nostalgia for a certain class, a certain type of suburban landscape, a certain kind of Sunday afternoon) into a sort of surrealist, existentialist story about social unevenness, alcoholism, and general human decline. Cheever wears down his protagonist as he embarks on his mission of swimming across the county via his neighbors’ swimming pools, and we see embedded in his journey a figurative darkening of the sky—marked by a literal storm, “a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance”—and a gradual awareness of his own decline. But Cheever is a master of suspension and restraint, and we don’t see, until the very end of the story, the true nature of Neddy’s failures. I think what worked so well for me here was the lack of literal interpretation, the feeling that things aren’t quite right in Cheever’s world but that we also can’t quite tell what it is. Again, his genius use of dialogue: Neddy sees the world one way, but we see the unreliability of that worldview through dialogue, when he visits friends and former lovers and is met with a certain disdain that we weren’t led to expect based on Neddy’s own explanation of his circumstances and his social standing.