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.