Untoward Stories: The Angel of the Bridge / John Cheever

Untoward, we know.
Difficult to work with, as in that old Otis Redding tune later covered by the Black Crows: Hard to Handle. (I’m so untoward, Momma; yes I ram.) My Merriam-Webster’s Thesaurus likes fractious, indocile, intractable and recalcitrant for synonyms. I like marginally uncontrollable because we can all probably think of an untoward someone like that. Anyway, one sign of good writing, they say, is the ability to use words like untoward naturally in places where they actually fit. If we have to reach for a word, or cram it in somewhere just to demonstrate our erudition, maybe we should ask ourselves: Am I writing to convey information, create a mood, tell a story, touch a reader, or am I writing (a) to show how clever I am, or (b) to convince somebody to believe something I want them to believe? I like John Cheever because he is brilliant in his story telling, never indulges in polemics, uses words so artfully and naturally that he makes it look easy, doing it all with a twinkle in his eye. In one of his stories (about Artemus, the artful well-digger), he needs a `filler’ character (a functionary) to perform certain, ahem, lewd acts on the bedridden hero, so he brings in this matronly lady character to conduct the intimacies. Her name is Mrs. Filler.

Stories, we know.
A story is what writers write. The difference between a `good’ story and an ordinary one? Between a good story and a great one? Depends who you ask, huh? Not everybody likes champagne. We begin with the consideration that John Cheever is surely one of our best 20th Century American writers. Run him up on Wikipedia and we find an impressive bibliography. Rank the life we find there with the lives of other writers and we see that he had his triumphs and defeats like the rest. His own therapist took his wife’s side and called him ‘neurotic, narcissistic, egocentric and friendless’ (talk about being surrounded by assassins). Cheever was an alcoholic and a closet bi-sexual, and as we see when we read his work, he was also one hell of a gifted writer. We should all write with his conviction, intelligence and depth. His Collected Stories (1978) contains 61 pieces selected by the author. It won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for literature. `The Enormous Radio’ is one of his widely admired early stories. His story, The Swimmer’, a satirical look at east coast suburbia, was made into a motion picture starring Burt Lancaster. A critic called Cheever ‘the Chekhov of the suburbs’. (Wikipedia)

His story, ‘Torch Song’, about a creepy woman who turns up every time somebody is about to die, is one of my favorites, along with `Angel of the Bridge’.

Breaking down a beautiful, living breathing story into a litany of elements has always struck me as being a little like doing an autopsy while somebody’s still alive. Enjoying the story as a matter of first impression is far more rewarding than watching it rendered to fat and sinew by analysis. That said, a few words:

The opening lines of Angel of the Bridge are among the best ‘hooks’ you’re likely to run across in modern literature. “You may have seen my mother waltzing on ice skates in Rockefeller Center. She’s seventy eight years old now but very wiry, and she wears a red velvet costume with a short skirt.” Well, okay. These lines are not only interesting in and of themselves for the gently humorous, slightly off kilter images they create, but also because they immediately give us the sense that the narrative voice doesn’t find his mother’s antics as amusing as we do, making him vulnerable (i.e. more than a little embarrassed by his aging mother’s skating activities in, of all places, Rockefeller Center) and that vulnerability is important to the story. When it comes down to the matter of his fears, which is what he really wants to talk about, that vulnerability is right there, just behind the easy going, chatty style that is one of Cheever’s earmarks. He writes with such ease and credibility that we forget it’s a cleverly crafted story and not somebody telling us about his life. He completes the story, resolving what he has to resolve to make it a story, and in the end, the narrator does come to understand and deal with his fears as best he can, but the voice leaves one significant matter unresolved, and this is by design, and this, I would argue, is what makes the story exceptional (and a bit untoward).

He captures a sense of fear through images reflecting on his mother’s fear of flying and his brother’s fear of heights, the latter in recollection that his brother felt like the building was going to fall down around him, an irrational fear similar to his own fear that the George Washington Bridge was about to disintegrate with him on it. “A strong wind struck the car the moment we were on the bridge, and nearly took the wheel out of my hand. It seemed to me that I could feel the huge structure swing. Halfway across the bridge I thought I felt the roadway begin to give.”

It is the telling that sells the story, of course, but also the sense that we are compelled to suspend our beliefs or disbeliefs regarding angels (the unresolved ambiguity) in order to appreciate what’s unfolded. Unresolved matters and ambiguities are generally not good in fiction. How often have we been pulled into a narrative by interesting premises only to be let down when the writer can’t follow through on a promising set-up? How many stories have we read that begin strong but lose their way? ‘Lady or the Tiger’ stories aside, we demand closure and resolution of our fiction. Would we have ever heard of Conan Doyle if he’d left a stumped Sherlock Holmes scratching his head at the end of the adventure, facing an unsolved mystery? Cheever does just that at the end of Angel, with that harp out there for us to ponder. It’s a nice touch. The stuff of really good writing.

Dying of cancer in 1982, John Cheever received the National Book Award at Carnegie Hall in New York. “A page of good prose,” he declared in his remarks that day “remains invincible.”