The Sutton Place Story by John Cheever, 1946
The magic trick:
Mixing in sharp criticism of false use of religion
This is the third Cheever story on SSMT and the third Cheever story to feature selfish parents failing to properly take care of their child. Yikes. That’s what we call a trend, folks.
Anyway, Cheever takes aim at several things here, including his favorite targets: the immature, self-absorbed, entitled adults of New York. I was most interested, though, in his comments about religion in “Sutton Place.” They are not necessarily a focal point, but neither are they particularly subtle.
Mrs. Harley goes to church every Sunday morning, but in order to do so, she must commit the selfish and irresponsible act of passing her babysitting duties off on Renee.
Renee attends a funeral and begins to cry during the Lord’s Prayer, but only because she is worried about her own life: growing old and dying alone.
And finally, Mrs. Tennyson turns to the bible, but only when tragedy befalls her family. In a particularly Cheever-esque moment of dark comedy, she reads the story of Abraham and compares his sacrifice to the plight she and Mr. Tennyson face.
Cheever has a very funny way of presenting his characters with sensitive detail and, even, a touch of love. He knows these people intimately; he cares about them. But, man, he savages them story after story; his early work is a relentless onslaught against the oblivious yuppie lifestyle of the ’40s and ’50s. “Sutton Place” adds to that mix some juicy jabs at the way his characters misunderstand and misuse religion in their lives. Super sharp. Super memorable. And that’s quite a trick on Cheever’s part.
He stepped into his apartment and called to Katherine. She was in their bedroom, sitting by the window. She had a black book in her lap. He saw that it was the Bible. It was a Gideon copy that a drunken friend of theirs had stolen from a hotel. They had used it once or twice as a reference. Beyond the open window, he could see the river, a wide, bright field of light. The room was very still.