O Youth And Beauty by John Cheever, 1953
The magic trick:
Bringing the reader back to a very specific place and time in entitled, suburban White America
Cheever’s Shady Hill is a wonderful place to visit. I don’t quite know why. The people are gross, entitled cartoons. Their choices and values are mostly reprehensible. But there is comfort in the consistency, I think. Like a television show you enjoy returning to – no matter the plot.
This story will test your willingness to forgive the plot. A guy feels old? Worries he can’t hang with his crowd of friends like he used to? Jumps over living room furniture to prove his worth? Yeah. Yikes.
Even allowing for the “No, the fact that it’s ridiculous is the whole point” logic, it’s still beyond ridiculous. And I haven’t even mentioned the ending. Seriously, the ending is best ignored. I can’t deal with it. It’s just too much.
But, all that said, it’s Shady Hill. The stories set in this fictitious New York suburb combine to form a world. It’s a specific place and time in White America. This story seems to know that, too. It’s not just something that accidentally happens as a reader looks back decades later on the series of stories. Cheever knew. It’s as if the story itself is superfluous. He revels in the chance to portray Shady Hill as some kind of tragic ideal. So perhaps Shady Hill doesn’t exist for the reader to visit. It was created by the author for the author. And that’s quite a trick on Cheever’s part.
Then it is a summer night, a wonderful summer night. The passengers on the eight-fifteen see Shady Hill – if they notice it at all – in a bath of placid golden light. The noise of the train is muffled in the heavy foliage, and the long car windows look like a string of lighted aquarium tanks before they flicker out of sight. Up on the hill, the ladies say to one another, “Smell the grass! Smell the trees!” The Farquarsons are giving another party, and Harry has hung a sign, WHISKEY GULCH, from the rose arbor, and is wearing a chef’s white hat and an apron. His guests are still drinking, and the smoke from his meat fire rises, on this windless evening, straight up into the trees.
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