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

For a copy of the text, click here.

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.

 

 

 

How To Get Back Into Blogging?

That’s a question I’ve asked myself numerous times over the past few weeks.

Sometimes I posed the question abruptly to catch myself off guard (as though such a thing were possible) and hear my knee-jerk response, some sort of subconscious truth. Other times it was more of a mediation. I interrogated myself as both good cop and bad cop, I pleaded with myself, and I even briefly considered a bartering with the Devil a la Dr. Faust. Needless to say, none of these methods proved very useful. My answers ranged from the practical (“I have a job now and less time to blog.”) to existential-crisis-inducing (“If I am a floating speck in a colossal cosmic accident, how am I supposed to blog?”). The only thing these answers all had in common was that none of them were enough to get me back into blogging.

I kept thinking the answer was out there, or rather, within me, and I was just not being totally honest with myself. I’m sure others have asked themselves the exact same question and wondered why the answer was so elusive, why it had that perpetual tip-of-the-tongue feel to it.

My big revelation was simple: it is the wrong question to ask. There is not a single correct answer to it. So I framed the question differently and once I did, I felt like I could begin to answer it. So now I ask, “Why did I get into blogging in the first place?”

Well that has plenty of answers, all of them true. All of them, I wager, can be distilled into a single word: perspective.

I started because I have a unique perspective, we all do. I have a dark sense of humor. I’m nostalgic. I’m sarcastic to a fault. I have strange opinions on everyday matters. Everyone, including me, has stories, thoughts, memories, and feelings that are contained within them and shape them as an individual.

The real essence of blogging comes from this perspective, the way that we as individuals encounter the world. On that note, I’d argue that blogging has two fundamental, deceivingly simply, purposes.

The first purpose is to put my thoughts out there so that I can see them from a distance, look at them from different angles, twist and turn them until I uncover something about myself. E.M. Forster once wrote, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Although I am writing for an audience, I myself am part of that audience. Only once I get these thoughts out of my chaotic about-to-derail train of thought can I begin to look at these thoughts and appreciate them for what they truly are, the most basic parts of my existence.

The second purpose then is to share my outlook with others who have a totally different worldview than me. True, your thoughts and my thoughts might overlap in places, but they are still distinct and separate entities. It is through blogging that we express and allow others to experience what it feels like to be us. To illustrate this point, think back to a time when you read something brilliant and the barrier between your own thoughts and the words on the page dissolved. The two lines, your thoughts and the author’s words, converged into a single stream of consciousness. To use a technical term, what you experienced was a “suspension of disbelief.” That feeling was the alignment of your perception with another’s perception. In effect you temporarily became what you were reading. You escaped and welcomed this escape.

There are a million reasons to stop blogging. Each time the circumstances are different but the solution is the same. Instead of looking at the ending, the fallout, look towards the beginning. You have a perspective. Put it out there to hear yourself speak and to share with others your remarkably tiny yet irreplaceable piece of the human condition.

How Triptychs Can Improve Your Writing

Have you ever had one of those short stories that begins with a clear, intense, glowing idea that loses its brilliance after a few pages?

Maybe the plot dwindles. Maybe a character’s motivations get confused. The language falls flat. You get too far away from the incredible idea you started out with.

Now look at the Bosch triptych above. The panels don’t tell a sequential story necessarily. Rather, they are united by theme. Each panel tells its own story, and together, the panels add up to a fourth story.

Nestor advocates for this technique in Writing Is My Drink  as her writing often derives from a feeling or idea that doesn’t translate into a plot/traditional story. Rather than create a story, she comes up with three impressionistic sketches, all of which share a common denominator. The differences in the stories only help to narrate a fourth, overarching story. Consider the following excerpt about using the tripartite structure centered on the theme of “detachment.”

A single golden thread of the theme of detachment wove its way through the three scenes- magically holding the scenes together, but just barely. It was the barely that thrilled me. Barely was exactly what I was trying to say; maybe barely was hat I’d been wanting to say for awhile. 

Thus, the disparate elements are united by the small similarities that unite them. Whereas we often find a theme in a story, why not try beginning with a theme and forming a story from that?

How To Write A Triptych

1. Brainstorm of list of ideas/feelings/concepts (e.g. loss, detachment, lust, birth, insomnia) and select one.

2. After picking one of the words, spend 15 minutes “riffing” on it. Try free-writing to see what comes out. Think of the word as a mantra repeating inside your mind as you pour out ideas that spawn from it.

3. Finally, look at what you have so far and find 3 incidents that are complete enough to write a “panel” about. Then just go for it.

Finally, check out these different triptychs for inspiration. See how loose or tight a theme can be.

10 Writing Tips I Was Reminded Of After Getting Torn Apart

1. Write What You Know

We all have a unique lens through which we view the world. We see things differently than anyone else; not better, not worse, just subjectively different. Some would argue that the ultimate aim of writing is to communicate this unique viewpoint in a way such that a reader can experience a suspension of disbelief, that curious thing that great writing does where we understand, if only for a fleeting moment, what it feels like to be somebody other than ourselves. This sense of walking in someone else’s shoes is conveyed through narrative voice. Finding your voice is a process of elimination as much as discovery. So, look for what doesn’t suit you, cut it out of your writing, and repeat this process until you have your own refined, authentic voice. 

2. If You’re Forcing It, Do Something Else

When you hit a creative wall, put your manuscript in a drawer. Save your draft and walk away. Don’t come back until you’ve done something other than read, write, or ruminate on your thoughts. Don’t force the pieces together. That’s being the writerly equivalent of that little playground shithead that jams a puzzle piece where it doesn’t belong and claims to have finished the puzzle. Don’t be a playground shithead. Instead, walk away so that you can view your work with fresh eyes and discover what is giving you trouble.

3. Read Your Writing Like a Reader Would

Going off my last point, when you come back to your writing, read it from the perspective of your audience. After every sentence, ask yourself: “if I didn’t know what I was trying to say there, would I be able to figure it out just by reading it?” This requires a blindness, a distance from yourself and your thoughts. You could even call it intentional ignorance. W.B. Yeats often talked about donning a “mask” so that he could read his works as a critic, not a poet. Strive for clarity. So, when rereading, ask yourself, “is it clear to the reader what I am attempting to communicate?” and then, “could it be clearer?”

4. Read Others’ Writing Like a Writer

I’m sure you’ve come across a sentence or paragraph that forces you to pause and stare at the page. For me, this always happens when I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Towards the beginning, the narrator writes that “in the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” Until I explicated that line, I couldn’t understand where that sentence rived its narrative thrust from. Once I picked it apart, I realized that the internal theme of light (“sunset,” “illuminated,” “aura”) causes the words to glow, only to be cutoff at the end by an unexpected intrusion, an unwelcome reversal. Pick apart any and all writing. Good writing provides you with a how-to manual, bad writing provides you with a trouble-shooting guide. Both are equally helpful.

5. Understatement Is A Powerful Tool

An implication, when used correctly, is far more powerful than a direct statement. Take for example Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” We know what they’re talking about (in this case, an abortion), yet their reluctance to outright state it builds suspense and makes us curious. Be subtle. Be slow to reveal. Don’t be melodramatic. This is why Mad Men is critically acclaimed and soap operas need their own Emmy ceremony.

6. Take The Time To Research Your Subject

Get curious about what you’re writing about, even if it is about yourself. Research adds depth and understanding that often counteracts and contradicts our preexisting notions. So don’t write based off assumptions. That’s presumptuous, and presumption in writing is achingly painful and boring to read at best. Whether it’s a memoir or a biography, researching your subject can only supplement the finished product. 

7. Substance > Style

Having pleasant prose that ebbs and flows is wonderful, but, as the expression goes, you can’t polish a turd. If a story lacks plot or an argument lacks structure, it cannot be remedied by tacking on even the most euphonic diction. “Halcyon diarrhea rolls off the tongue, but I struggle to find a context in which loose stool can be joyful or pastoral. In my article, I tried to patch up a navel-gazing argument with purple prose. However, putting makeup on a mannequin isn’t pretty, it’s still hollow and lifeless.

8. Rejection Doesn’t Hurt Unless You Let It

I’ve been called some nasty things by people that don’t like my work. But rather than take those to heart as insults, I instead viewed even the more derogatory comments as suggestions disguised as put-downs. They had a reason to call me out. My writing was weak and my argument suffered because of it. However, I was able to glean from the detractors a couple gems of constructive advice. (10 to be exact.) 

9. Revision Is Key

It’s exciting to finish a first draft. It’s less-than-exciting to go back through, word by word, and second-guess yourself. It’s even less fun to third-, fourth-, and fifth-guess yourself, but it is necessary. Cut large, sweeping swaths through your writing before you fix the little things. Consider rearranging, restructuring, and rebuilding your work to get the maximum effect. Perhaps add in a detail or two. This process can be tedious and even induce insanity in rare cases, but the final product will thank you

10. Reflect and Try Again

We encounter a new set of challenges every time we sit down to write. We stare at a blank page and try to turn ideas into words that can be turned back into ideas. It is amazing that this process works at all. When it doesn’t work, when there is a disparity between the author’s intent and the reader’s interpretation, it is up to you the author to try to determine how this miscommunication occurred. Once you have an idea of where you went astray, it is on you to try to fix it. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. If not, the cycle repeats itself until you and your readers reach a consensus. 

Starting Over With A New Direction

Recently I had a piece published online, and I was happy. I’d completed a work that had given me a lot of trouble. I’d wrestled and overcome writer’s block. My name and blog got some exposure. And, not least of which, I could say that I’d been published.

And then I got ripped to shreds.

The comments ranged from unimpressed to hostile. People didn’t like what I wrote and they didn’t like me for writing it. I wondered, “did they miss something?” I went back and reread it and found the problem: it was sloppily written, and because of that, it gave the wrong message. How could I, an English major at a good school make such a glaring mistake? I got A’s in all my writing classes, how could this happen?

I realized that I deserved everything they were saying. I’m not as good a writer as I thought I was.

I was surprised by what happened next. I thought I would feel like an idiot or a sham or embarrassed or at least insulted.

Instead I felt inspired.

Inspired to become a better writer. Inspired to re-think the way that I viewed the writing process. I was excited to discover my flaws and fix them, to tear down my preexisting notions and forge new perspectives. I was enthusiastic when I looked at my bookshelf and saw all those unread books, just waiting to teach me something.

I am ready for the writer I was to die off and, in his place, erect a better writer; wiser and braver and more courageous because I had failed and yet set the bar even higher for myself.

So what does this mean for my blog?

Well, I will no longer continue to post sporadic poems, flash fiction, pictures, and quotes. Rather, I will be diving into books on writing and opening the forum up for discussion. I’ll be coming up with and posting focused exercises and prompts to develop new skills. I’ll examine advice from great authors, past and present, and try to extract practical wisdom from them. I’ll look at these greats and examine their writing to see what techniques they use to convey their message. And I’ll be doing this every day. Not once in a while. It’s time to make writing a daily practice.

More than anything, I am making this blog about you all, not about me.

So please, join me and let’s become better writers. Little by little, day by day. Why wait?

I Am From (#tbt to 7th Grade)

There have been a handful of moments in my life thus far where my words have been clearer than my thoughts; I’ve either written or said more than I was able to imagine. This poem, perhaps one of the first I’d ever written, was the first time I ever noticed this phenomenon of language.

I Am From

I am from the ivy laden
stones of my house,
the green leaves circling
around the tall chimney.

I am from the vibrations
that run up my legs as
I bomb down the black
asphalt against urethane.

I am from my front balcony
sitting in a rocking chair
sipping cold lemonade as
seeds fall from a maple.

I am from fast fingers
and souldful grooves
that come from the melodies
of my guitar.

I am from wet dogs
shaking orbs of water
off after being outside
in hard rain for hours.