Saturday, 1 August 2009

John Cheever's 'Reunion'

It's less than a thousand words long but it packs a wallop that resonates down through the years. It's one of the best shorts I have ever read. Actually, the first time I didn't read it. I heard it, as a New Yorker podcast. I thought it a little over-warmed that time - a whisky soaked relic from the fifties. I have since learned that listening is the poor relation of reading. Listening with pictures though, after first listening, then reading, is a heartening experience...

The story is a basic one. Charlie has a meeting with his father. The real entertainment comes from the behaviour and attitudes of the father. He seems hell bent on using irony and disdain to prove some far off distant point that no one can quite seem to grasp, least of all him. He shouts a lot, is sarcastic and boorish. In some ways he is hilarious company, in others, a monster. The behaviour might be the result of drunkeness, but it also seems more than that. There seems to be a keen misanthropy deep under the surface, yet there is also a sense of joy that the father has in getting 'a rise' out of people - almost as if he is trying to wake the sleeping world. I love this idea - a character trying to break some kind of social seal with wonder and hard irony: "I have a whistle that is audible only to the ears of old waiters".

The brilliance of the story is that none of these motivations and behaviours outweighs the others. The father is a perfectly balanced enigma - and so, naturally, is the son. Charlie is the counterpoint to this father in that he is quiet while the father is loud. But he is no less enigmatic for that. The story is framed by the key phrase 'The last time I saw my father...' but Charlie never says why. He doesn't comment on his father's behaviour at all - he merely describes it. The only active thing he does is state that he has to catch his train - but is this true or is he just trying to escape the situation? He doesn't say. It might even be that Charlie is the devil - making all this up about his father, or maybe even provoking the behaviour. It is all possible.

I was prompted into revisiting 'Reunion' after reading Brian Baise's "It's Nice When Someone Is Excited To Hear From You" in McSweeney's 29. That story also features a narrator who drinks and acts outrageously but not without reason. Again there is that sense of someone trying to break the bounds of society - trying to show the world something. There is little explanation of the motives, but a lot of description. It was only until I got to the end and read "...that was the last time I went to San Fransisco or saw my old friend Paul" that I suddenly realised this was all Cheever. The key idea was Cheever's - the POV had been switched to that of the perpetrator and the action was updated to San Francisco.

There's a rich seam here, and I'm starting to mine it.


  1. Cheever's Reunion is a great little story. I don't tend to order books online and had to wait several years before I found any of Cheever's stuff available in Waterstones (sure, I could probably have ordered it), but it was worth the wait. I enjoyed reading your summary of the story. It reminded me of my own joy at reading it.


  2. Interesting post, Frank. Thanks for posting the video. The father is so well potrayed. It is curious that we get no response from the son. Don't know if he is outraged, embarrassed, amused, pitiful, etc.