Story Playlist 15: Reunion

John Cheever: “Reunion” (1962) I came to “Reunion” by John Cheever after I interviewed novelist Justin Cronin. It was the first story he thought of when describing his routine of reading good prose to warm up before he starts to write. Unfamiliar with Cheever’s work, I expected a far more effortful prose than I found. And, while I tend to prefer the more Baroque among writers, there is much to be said for a writer like Cheever who is content to recede into the shadows behind his words, to watch how they play out. Edgar Allan Poe he ain’t.

A young man—the narrator—who has not seen his father for the three years since his parents’ divorce, meets him during a 90 minute layover between trains at Grand Central Station. The young man, Charlie, introduces the tale as “the last time I saw my father.” He describes his initial enthusiasm about the meeting and is proud just to be seen with his father, as they search for a place in midtown to have lunch. In restaurant after restaurant, the father acts like a condescending ass, and the young man is content never to see him again.

It’s a simple story, brief and simply written. There are no ten-dollar adjectives, or even five-dollar adjectives—heck, there are hardly any adjectives at all. It doesn’t so much feel written as breathed onto the page. The writing is not the least bit flashy. It is organic, oxygenated, with not a single term or turn of phrase that makes you realize there’s a writer behind it (no odd use of “oxygenated,” for example). It just is. But does it work? In its way, absolutely.

“Reunion” is about father-son relations, and feeling awkward. Charlie is, at first, so happy to see his father that he wishes someone would take a photograph of their meeting. His father embodies manhood, smelling of whiskey, after-shave, and wool. And the father seems pleased, too. But then, in one restaurant after another, the father, bemoaning the fact that they don’t have time to visit his club, orders Beefeater Gibsons, and does so in a way that condescends to, and insults, the waiters. He is so tactless in order to relish the power play between patron and “domestic,” asserting himself by using belittling language. After a handful of these encounters, the father insists on buying his son a newspaper for the train ride ahead, and proceeds to insult not just the newspaper vendor, but the papers themselves (“disgusting yellow journalism”). The son thanks him for the thought and leaves, and that’s that.

It is tempting to read Cheever himself into the father. Cheever was known as a man who liked his drink and could be an ass when drunk. But I always feel that it should be of secondary interest, to draw comparisons between the author and his characters. The work should stand alone, in a vacuum, and be just as interesting. The story is memorable and it makes you feel. The main feeling is awkwardness at witnessing the spectacle of the father’s overt condescension, the wasted opportunity for both the father and son in the father’s ridiculous behavior. But, to be honest, this struck me as over-the-top, sociopathic in a way that I found unbelievable. Maybe that was Cheever’s intention, but it did draw me out of the story in a way that seemed a shame.

With so little in the way of reflection by the narrator, the reader is left to infer a great deal of back story lurking in the white of the page. The father’s relationship with Charlie’s mother ended a while ago, but surely there were countless similar encounters she endured. The son’s anticipation at his reunion with his father, who he may have thought surely could not be as bad as his mother made out. And the young man certainly changes over the course of the short tale, from ebullient about meeting his father to—we may infer—deciding it is best never to see him again. It’s all implied, simply and briefly, the silences of what Cheever does not explicitly say almost louder than what he wrote.

This makes “Reunion” a good story for young writers who, if they are anything like me, tend to over-spice the proverbial soup, thinking that “more is more.” More description or, these days, more style (even if the style is conspicuous minimalism). There is much to be said for prose that does not feel written. In this sense, Cheever was a master among non-writers.