John Cheever, the American writer called ‘the Chekhov of the suburbs’
By Martin Chilton
John Cheever’s centenary is being celebrated in America today with the publication of a new edition of his collected stories.
Cheever, who was born on May 27th in Quincy, Massachusetts, was one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th century and was described by Elmore Leonard as “the Chekhov of the suburbs.”
Cheever was the son of a failed shoe salesman – the writer’s mother ran a “cluttered gift shop” – and he understood the ambition and inferiority complexes of post-war American life. He could be funny about the “crushing boredom” of life in the suburbs with the “stupid, depressed and uncreative” people who populated their tidy houses but he was more than just an angry critic of torpid rural life. As his contemporaryJohn Updike put it: “John Cheever was often labelled as a writer about suburbia; but many people have written about suburbia. Only Cheever was able to make an archetypal place out of it.”
Cheever deftly captured seething middle-class envy and his observations are as relevant as ever. In his story The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, for example, a man eaten up with jealousy about his ostentatious neighbours sneaks at night into the bedroom of a sleeping couple and steals cash from the husband’s wallet.
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