Brad Leithauser’s examples of Cheever’s artful adjectives bring me back fondly to evenings lost in that thick, tiny-printed, red-jacketed Collected Stories for the first time (italics Leithauser’s):
“a gentle and excursive mountain shower”; “I have cheerfully praised the evening sky hanging beyond the disheveled and expatriated palm trees on Doheny Boulevard”; “where one heard in the sounds of a summer rain the prehistoric promises of love, peacefulness, and beauty”; “her countenance was long, vacant, and weakly lighted”
Sound and sense distort the rhythm of these sentences so fruitfully and strangely. I’m still looking behind at “expatriated” at the end of its sentence when the boulevard that should’ve been the destination whispers perfunctorily past. “Prehistoric,” by far the most complicated word in its sentence syllabically, insists on its importance as a fulcrum; we smoothly ascend on ‘s’ and then bump down on ‘p,’ ‘p,’ and ‘b.’ The sentences remain relatively close to everyday syntax, but the adjectives trill them, and, tunneling into thoughts they don’t unpack, leave the landings firm but with their force diverted back into our mid-sentence sense of the narrator—what drives him to such mentions? What keeps him from explaining?
For all such sleight of hand, I love Cheever most when he’s similarly dexterous with event and scenic detail, as in 1961’s "The Seaside Houses":
After dark we shake up a drink, send the children to bed, and make love in a strange room that smells of someone else’s soap—all measures take to exorcise the owners and secure our possession of the place. But in the middle of the night the terrace door flies open with a crash, although there seems to be no wind, and my wife says, half asleep, “Oh, why have they come back? Why have they come back? What have they lost?”
To pull off a line like that, a page or two into a story (presuming you agree that he does)? It either lands with conviction or falls flat. With Cheever it’s mostly the same conviction that leaks into his adjectives, a sense that makes him both compelling and utterly unconvincing when, at the end of “The Cure,” the narrator says of the summer suburbs, “everyone here is well.”
In writing this I discovered that, in keeping with spambots’ literary leanings, the first entry returned by a Google for “cheever seaside houses” is a Tumblr page for “/tagged/1961-the-seaside-houses-john-cheever,” with identical posts by different, cryptically named users to the same ebook download.