People Worth Reading About

Before I got on the plane, I decided to pick one book out of three. If I narrowed down my options, chances were I would actually read between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. Life choices.

This one was difficult. It was a choice between the short stories of John Cheever, a collection of Hemingway’s four most popular novels (I had started reading The Sun Also Rises almost as soon as I unwrapped it), and poetry by L.E. Sissman. I went with Cheever’s stories, and I’m so glad I did, because one of them wasn’t a story at all. It wasn’t even a fable. But it gave me a deeper appreciation for the generosity and quality of his storytelling.

I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.
—John Cheever

It was titled “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear,” and it was like reading a notebook left on the author’s desk. In this “story,” Cheever describes seven types of people who will never make it under the slaps of his typewriter. One of them is popular with everyone and loved by no one; another is “All scornful descriptions of American landscapes”; and another he describes as the “lush”, or a character whose only poverty in the midst of his wealth and success is the contrived addiction that leads to his disgrace.

Why does Cheever openly reject such “characters”? Because, as he puts it,

…they throw so little true light on the way we live.

That line was like Cheever’s arm thrown around my shoulder. Sexual excesses and neglectful parenting aside, the man knew his audience. He had written a miscellany of negligible characters because, in his opinion, they weren’t real. They weren’t arguing in our bedrooms or dreaming over Yuengling in our backyards. They weren’t cutting us off in traffic or flirting with our spouses. They belonged to a fantastic rather than a real world, and so they had nothing to show us. They had no light to give.

So Cheever, being an empathetic storyteller, dismissed them from his stories. He appreciated Rome and Nantucket as much as any other writer, but he never sacrificed the suburban family for them. And this is why reading about the characters in his stories is sometimes like recognizing your fellow Americans in The Walking Dead. You realize that you know these people, that you see them at church on Sunday and at Applebee’s on Tuesday nights.

More than that, you recognize yourself among them as if Cheever had written the stories for you. By writing about the people you know and about the world in which you live, he shows how your dreams and desires matter, that your story matters because it contributes to every other story being told right now. He teaches you how to empathize with and even love the people around you.

It’s challenging to write about the neighbors’ piano music and the checkout girl at Walmart. Sometimes it’s easier to write about the ideals levitating in our heads. But the genius of Cheever’s stories is their simplicity and their love for the ordinary joy and sadness of the ordinary person.

And at the end of the day, that’s the person we should be thinking about.

If you haven’t read anything by Cheever, I heartily recommend him. “The Swimmer” is a great first sample.


Image by Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen via Flickr.

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