One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” John Cheever’s Goodbye, My Brother made the long list.
This is a remarkable story, fully deserving of being the first reading in The Stories of John Cheever, notably known as “the red book.” This carries Cheever’s quintessential northeastern family, with their infighting and drinking, and their summers on the island.
While I do love Cheever, I have to admit his sentences flow on, like this one in the first paragraph:
I don’t think about the family much, but when I remember its members and the coast where they lived and the sea salt that I think is in our blood, I am happy to recall that I am a Pommeroy – that I have the nose, the coloring, and the promise of longevity – and that while we are not a distinguished family, we enjoy the illusion, when we are together, that the Pommeroys are unique.
Cheever tells the story of a brother who returns to the family vacation home which overlooks a cliff on the Atlantic. The brother, Lawrence, has been the black sheep of the family, and his return mars the summer vacation for the rest of the clan.
Lawrence observes the aging house and the eroding shoreline with disdain, and is vocal about his concerns. While the family, all adults now, seek to enjoy themselves drinking martinis, playing backgammon and tennis, Lawrence sulks around as if observing everyone and everything with hatred in his soul.
The family is invited to a costume dance with an invitation that reads, “come as you wish you were.” The narrator recounts this marvelous moment of seeing his wife in costume:
I mixed cocktails that night while she was dressing, and when I took a glass upstairs to her, I saw her for the first time since our marriage in her wedding dress. There would be no point in saying that she looked to me more beautiful than she did on our wedding day, but because I have grown older and have, I think, a greater depth of feeling, and because I could see in her face that night both youth and age, both her devotion to the young woman that she had been and the positions that she had yielded graciously to time, I think I have never been so deeply moved.
Following her lead, he dresses as football player. When they arrive at the costume dance, they discover many women have chosen to go as brides and many men have chosen to be football players. They are all living in the past.
What’s remarkable to me is how the narrator through his brother’s eyes, such as in this line:
And I knew Lawrence was looking bleakly at the party as he had looked at the weather beaten shingles on our house, as if he saw here an abuse and a distortion of time….
Eventually, the narrator and Lawrence have a confrontation and Lawrence packs up his dour family and leaves the island.
The story ends with the narrator looking out over the beach and seeing both his sister and his wife swimming in the sea, and then he observes them walking “naked, unshy, beautiful,” out of the ocean.
This story delicately plays off the metaphor of the aging house and the eroding shoreline. When combined with the costume dance, and the idea of trying to relive the past, the story becomes haunting. This is a marvelous story in the Cheever tradition.