Reunion by John Cheever, 1962
The magic trick:
Writing a fairly minimalist story, but setting up the emotional stakes very clearly before the action begins
We’ve talked a lot on the SSMT blog during the last year about Hemingway and his Iceberg Theory, his less-is-more approach, the way he often just writes conversations and lets (demands) the reader to sort it all out. I don’t much care for it. Obviously, I respect the seminal nature of the approach. I even like some of the stories a lot. But generally speaking I have found that there is probably a lot less behind these conversation sketches than many critics give him credit for.
Let’s jump now to Cheever’s “Reunion” story, a piece that, like Hemingway, relies on the reader to supply much of the shading around the pencil drawings. Similar, yet I can’t possibly explain just how much more I like this story than your average Hemingway minimalist story. And I don’t say that to disparage Hemingway (even though it is admittedly kind of fun) as much as I want to stress just how much I admire this story.
The key difference between this and a Hemingway sketch? Cheever gives the reader a little push in the right direction at the start. In a story about the tragic alcoholic failings of a man to be a good father, Cheever establishes the emotional stakes before the action begins.
He does in two very quick ways.
One, he breaks from the time and place of the story very briefly to allow the narrator to reflect that his father was “my future and my doom. I knew that when I was grown I would be something like him; I would have to plan my campaigns within his limitations.” Two-and-a-half sentences. Boom. Done. Message sent.
Two, he establishes the boy as an incredibly innocent creature. He admires his father so much. He wants so much for him to be his hero.
OK, so now Cheever is freed up the rest of the story to do his Hemingway thing. He can simply relate various conversations and scenes in which the father acts very, very poorly. He offers no editorializing from the narrator. We get no insight to emotions. No “And that made me feel like this;” or “And when my father did this, I felt this…” There is no need. That introductory paragraph set us up perfectly. We understand just how much the boy wants to worship his father, so we can easily imagine how let down he must feel. And, even worse, we project this innocent boy in our imaginations and turn him into a similarly alcohol-ravaged adult, following in his father’s footsteps.
Hemingway never would’ve given us the intro. He would’ve skipped straight to the restaurant scenes with the father and son, and let the reader figure it out. Maybe we get to the same conclusion that way, I’m not sure. But “Reunion,” as is, assures a huge emotional impact. Every time. And that’s quite a trick on Cheever’s part.
He was a stranger to me — my mother divorced him three years ago and I hadn’t been with him since — but as soon as I saw him I felt that he was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom. I knew that when I was grown I would be something like him; I would have to plan my campaigns within his limitations. He was a big, good-looking man, and I was terribly happy to see him again. He struck me on the back and shook my hand. “Hi, Charlie,” he said, “Hi, boy. I’d like to take you up to my club, but it’s in the Sixties, and if you have to catch an early train I guess we’d better get something to eat around here.” He put his arm around me, and I smelled my father the way my mother sniffs a rose. It was a rich compound of whiskey and after shave lotion, shoe polish, woolens, and the rankness of a mature male. I hoped that someone would see us together. I wished that we could be photographed. I wanted some record of our having been together.