The Art of the Short Story: Goodbye, My Brother by John Cheever

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Quick Summary

The Pommeroys gather at their beach house on the Massachusetts coast for the first time in years. The house is a rundown money-pit, though that doesn’t diminish the nostalgia that the mother and her children (Diana, Chaddy, Lawrence, and the unnamed narrator) hold for the place. The family has not seen Lawrence, a successful lawyer and black sheep to the family, in many years.

The narrator is a high school English teacher with no hopes of promotion. Diana is recently divorced. Chaddy is married to Odette, who flirts benignly with the narrator. Lawrence, a successful lawyer in Albany, nicknamed Tifty, Little Jesus, and Croaker, is the last to join the family at the beach house.

Lawrence voices his disapproval of Diana’s love life, remarks upon the dilapidated condition of the cottage, and harshly judges the family’s drinking and gambling over backgammon. He is estranged from the family, having cut ties in high school. Though he is the most distinguished and successful of the children, he is attributed a pessimism by the narrator (only partially through his own word or actions).

Lawrence and his wife, Ruth, refuse to go to the dance one night. The theme, “dress as you wish you were,” shows the aching nostalgia of not only the other Pommeroy children, but also of the island’s other visitors. Nearly all of the women wear their bridal gown, and many of their husbands wear their high school football jersey.

The next day, the family sans narrator and Lawrence attend a flower show. The brothers go for a walk, and in a bout of anger, the narrator strikes his brother with a log of driftwood. Lawrence, injured and silent, walks back to the house and leaves the next day.

Notes and Observations

  • Goodbye, My Brother is the first story in The Stories of John Cheever, which won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award in 1979, and later a National Book Award in 1981. I’ve heard writers refer to the collection as “The Big Orange Book” the way Bible-beaters reference the “Good Book.” wp-1456951619654.jpg
  • The “Chekhov of the suburbs,” John Cheever spent a lifetime peering behind the white picket fences, exploring the human condition that hid itself under layers of conformity.
  • Told from a third person point of view, the titular brother has surprisingly few lines dedicated his dialogue or actions. Rather, he is supplied dark thoughts by his “optimistic” brother, the narrator, who over the course of the story undermines his reliability.
  • The gloomy thoughts are really the creations of the narrator, a professed optimist who can’t stand Lawrence’s perspective (e.g. “The wind and the sea had risen, and I thought that if he heard the waves, he must hear them only as a dark answer to all his dark questions; that he would think that the tide had expunged the embers of our picnic fires.”)
  • Lawrence is the most successful by far. Perhaps Cheever is suggesting that there are two ways to view life: one of stoic resignation and truth, the other of blissful enjoyment and unabashed happiness. There is a stalemate in the story, both views have their benefits and costs.
  • These outlooks, and climactic scene, are foreshadowed early one: “Our dislikes are as deeply ingrained as our better passions, and I remembered that once, twenty-five years ago, when I had hit Lawrence on the head with a rock, he had picked himself up and gone directly to our father to complain.”
  • The family’s nostalgia is illustrated by the longing for what they once were, evidenced at the ball. Not only do they all dress the same, implying a conformist experience, but that someone decided on that theme is telling as well.
  • Lawrence is the anti-nostalgic foil to the story. He isn’t incorrect though. The house is falling apart. The family does do the same activities, over and over and over again. The dance is corny. They are drunks. They are unsuccessful.
  • The narrator describes the accuracy of Lawrence’s anti-nostalgic outlook: “I 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.”
  • The sheer poetry of certain lines is enough to qualify this story as one of Cheever’s best. (e.g. “The naked beach, like a  piece of the moon, reached to invisibility.”)
  • Cheever’s prose fluidly mixes the mythological, the biblical, and the intellectual. Perhaps the best example of this is the last paragraph (no spoilers: “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? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming–Diana and Helen–and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”
  • In his essay “Against Epiphany,” Charles Baxter cites this paragraph, and the story as a whole, as one of the few noteworthy examples of epiphany since James Joyce began the “mass production of insight.”

    Read somewhere that Hunter S. Thompson typed out "The Great Gatsby" to see what it felt like to write something masterful. Well, this is my version of that technique.
    Read somewhere that Hunter S. Thompson typed out “The Great Gatsby” to see what it felt like to write something masterful. Well, this is my version of that technique.

 

 

 

Seven-Eleven at Four-Thirty

I stroll, nearly somnolent, through the glass door. It is a bright room that glows golden beneath the near-dawn sky. Inside a bartender, nameless to me, nods and smiles. He is scratching a sore and talking to a police officer who has a tattoo of a Gaelic knot. Time has eroded the navy lines together.
“She didn’t feel any pain,” the officer says. “What was left of her just washed down the drain.” He shrugs, raising his coffee to his mouth and his sleeve up above the knot. Roman numerals mark some date, tallied on his arm like a prisoner counting sunless days.
A ruddy, pock-mocked old man hiccups so violently that his eyes roll like lost marbles. The cop puts his arm around him and laughs. But his smile is short-lived. “I, too, lost a son in Afghanistan, so I can understand their pain.”
I realize that some choose not to sleep at night. Under cover of darkness they do not see the things that they do not want to see: a lost son, an empty wallet, their own reflection.
“And then her family walked outside in the rain. She was up in the tree, just swaying back and forth, back and—“
“You have a nice night,” the tired cashier tells me.
“Thank you. You try to do the same,” I stammer.

“The Plague” (a very short story)

The breeze blew the pathogen in through the kitchen window. Michael was the first person to be infected. He was making eggs for his wife, Jordan. He always made scrambled eggs for her, but at that moment the disease began to reveal its symptoms. He realized that eggs did not have to be scrambled, and that he could make her eggs sunny-side-up, or hardboiled, or poached. He could also drop an egg on the ground and call an ambulance. He could throw an egg out the window and then yell at a pedestrian that he fucked their mother, or he could yell that they’re beautiful, or he could ask them what time it is. Michael considered his options, and while doing so burnt the eggs and set off the smoke alarm.

Michael’s wife walked in and asked what was going on. 

“I’m not sure,” Michael said. His wife took the pan off of the stove, and in doing so became infected herself. She noticed that the window was opened, and grabbed a newspaper to wave the smoke out of the room. Then she realized that she could also use a magazine to the same effect, or that she could rip the magazine into little pieces. She could also call in to cancel her subscription to the magazine. Then it occurred to her that while she was on the phone, she could even put on a French accent and pretend to be a widow named Margaux whose husband loved the magazine, but since he is now passed and she has lost her raison d’etre, she no longer needs the subscription and that it is little things like this that make her miss him. 

“I’m going to get breakfast and coffee, would you like anything?”
“I think I’ll have a. . .” Jordan paused as she wondered what she would like. A half-caf latte? A cup of tea? A cranberry scone? An abortion? Another chance at love? A lecture on feminism? A Volvo? A bowl of apples? A caterpillar? 

“I’ll take that as a no,” Michael said as he left.  

When he walked into the coffee shop, Michael immediately infected nearly everyone in the room. The barista asked Michael what he would like. Michael looked at the chalkboard menu and read every word. He could have any one of those words, but he was not sure which he would prefer. He was afraid that he might order something, think about what his choice revealed about his personality, change his mind, come to regret his decision, post his feelings on his blog, feel an obligation to drink whatever it was he ordered to uphold his sense of self-consistency, burn his tongue, and gnash his teeth while rocking back and forth in the fetal position.

Meanwhile, a man was smiling at his girlfriend who was smiling back. There was a lull in their conversation during which he wondered if he would like another cookie. He could have a cookie, but cookies are full of empty calories, and so he decided not to have a cookie. Although, oatmeal raisins seem healthy, so he could probably justify having one of those. He could also stab that cunt sitting across from him in the throat with his pen, which he did. She squirmed around a little bit. He smeared some blood on his face like warpaint, and then wondered why he felt bad as he laid down on the floor to take a nap. 

A person who was not sick yet called the police and vomited. Officer Adams showed up and was very alarmed. He gasped, and in doing so inhaled the disease. He walked over to the man who was still laying on the ground. While walking over, he noticed his handcuffs jingling on his belt. He thought of all of the things that one could do with handcuffs. He could subdue an unruly fugitive, lock a whore to his bedpost, falsely arrest a black man, or wait until later that day at which point he would throw the damn handcuffs and his badge in a trashcan and walk off into a periwinkle sunset, resolving to go back to school and start life anew. However, he decided to handcuff the man to the table. Then Officer Adams shot the man in the stomach. 

Adams marveled at all of the things he could do with his gun. He could hold up the coffee shop, shoot the air while dancing like Yosemite Sam, or he could set his gun on the floor and meditate beside it. There were a lot of things he could do with a gun, but he chose to look down the barrel. He saw a spark and then he died. 

There were many different reactions from the people in the coffee shop, all of whom had been infected by now. An old woman began to pull her hair out, one man wept, another man got a diamond hard erection and ran to the bathroom to masturbate furiously, and a woman poured her coffee on her face and laughed because it burned so badly. 

Michael decided that he wasn’t hungry, but should use this time to change his password on his computer. He pulled a laptop out of his messenger bag and logged in. He could make his password hard to decipher, or just “password,” or “aliensdontexist,” or “MatthewsDogDied.” He could not choose a password, so he stared at the screen until his computer died. Unsure of what to do next, Michael sat very still and did not move for five days, at which point he fell off his chair, dead. 

The plague spread. Most people did not experience as grim an ending as Adams or the girlfriend. Rather, they simply couldn’t decide what to do next so they stared into the infinity beyond the clouds until they died, like turkeys in a thunderstorm.