From my last two cards, I drew the 3 of Diamonds, representing John Cheever’s classic “Goodbye, My Brother”. This story has been frequently anthologized but originally ran in The New Yorker on August 25, 1951.
The reader is introduced to the Pommeroy family – Mother, the matriarch, and her adult children – daughter Diana and sons Chaddy, Lawrence and the male narrator, as well as their respective spouses and children. They have come together at the family summer home on an island off Massachusetts. The rest of the family hasn’t seen Lawrence in several years, and it quickly becomes clear that his relationship with his mother and siblings has long been strained at best.
Lawrence is a morose man quick to find fault and always ready with a negative comment. Mother tends to drink in his presence, his wife is sad and harried and his children are timid and quick to cry. The family tries to include Lawrence in their summer activities, but he seems to want none of this or of them. He wants nothing more than to get back to his law practice and away from his kin, all of whom he thinks to be foolish, impractical and stuck in the past. Eventually his general nastiness becomes too much for the narrator, who lashes out with an uncharacteristic violence.
The story is fairly straight-forward at heart, but Cheever’s canny knack for characterization and his ability to paint a scene with crystal clear detail provide layers of context that make the story far more impressive and thought-provoking than a short work of family drama might in less-skilled hands. As I read, I felt I knew these characters far more deeply than I should from so few words. I felt like I had been given a perfect, compact set of portraits and would be able to pick each player out from a crowd. The density of suggested, implied and unwritten subtext in each sentence provided enough insight for nearly an entire novel.
Cheever makes good use of metaphor with his frequent mention of the sea. The sea is slowly eroding the island; the sea renews; the sea brings together, and the sea separates; the sea represents both home and a barrier; the sea illustrates the passage of time. Time-with-a-capital-T is another metaphor at the center of the story – the ravages of Time, a “simpler Time” in the past, nostalgia for the past, wishing to escape from the past.
Even the names of the female characters were clearly chosen for their symbolism. The sister Diana and the narrator’s wife Helen and Chaddy’s wife Odette all have names that harken to Greco-Roman mythology and archetypal concepts, (Diana, representing freedom and the wild, is divorced and lives as she sees fit in Paris; Helen is beautiful and graceful; Odette is happy to undertake the journey-quest of life.) while Lawrence’s long-suffering wife Ruth is as loyal and obedient as her Biblical namesake.
I have been in awe of John Cheever ever since I first read “The Swimmer” some 25 years ago. I’ve read several of his stories since that time, and I must surely have encountered this one before, but reading it now was like a whole new experience. I feel like I need to reread his work now that I can potentially relate more fully to many of his themes. I believe he was one of the most brilliant writers of short fiction in English, and I would like to give him my full, (ostensibly) adult attention.