‘The Angel Of The Bridge’ by John Cheever


The Angel Of The Bridge by John Cheever, 1961

The magic trick:

Establishing a psychological tone early in the story with a narrative aside about flying

Something happened to John Cheever in the 1960s. It’s as if he suddenly became a different writer. Maybe he aged overnight. Maybe he just got sick and tired of his nearly journalistic sketches of the middle class. I don’t know, but his so-called later work is far different. It’s not that he started to paying attention to different kinds of people or ways of lives. He’s still as WASPy as can be. But these later stories are more pensive and more personal. Crucially, they are far less streamlined than his earlier stories, which almost always shone as beacons of efficiency.

I don’t know if I mean this as a compliment or not. I prefer Cheever’s stories of the ’40s and ’50s. But I don’t think that preference has as much to do with their straight-line narratives as much as I just think Cheever was far less consistent in delivering powerful stories after 1960. It’s as if he ran out of insights. That said, “The Swimmer” and “Reunion,” my two favorites of his are from this later period, so who knows?

Anyway, “Angel” contains a passage about the joys of traveling by plane that I very much like. The narrator stretches out for a long aside discussing the wonders of flight before recalling an existential crisis caused by a mysterious light outside of Los Angeles. You would never find something like this in those early Cheever stories that were too anxious to get to the next beat to dally like this.

In “Angel,” these airplane thoughts don’t move the plot along, per se, but they establish a definitely psychological mood for the story while letting the reader know this narrator isn’t as normal or well-adjusted as he’d like to believe. And that’s quite a trick on Cheever’s part.

The selection:

Flying westward one dark night – we had crossed the Continental Divide, but we were still an hour out of Los Angeles and had not begun our descent, and were at such an altitude that the sense of the houses, cities, and people below us was lost – I saw a formation, a trace of light, like the lights that burn along a shore. There was no shore in that part of the world, and I knew I would never know if the edge of the desert or some bluff or mountain accounted for this hoop of light, but it seemed, in its obscurity – and at that velocity and height – like the emergence of a new world, a gentle hint at my own obsolescence, the lateness of my time of life, and my inability to understand the things I often see. It was a pleasant feeling, completely free of regret, of being caught in some observable mid-passage, the farther reaches of which might be understood by my sons.

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