Friday, August 10, 2012

Short Take: "The Country Husband," John Cheever

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

John Cheever’s “The Country Husband” is a compelling study in suburban alienation. While it is not his most famous short story, it may be his best. The story opens with an amusing comic situation: the protagonist survives a plane crash unharmed, and he can’t find anyone who cares. When he comes home, his wife and children are preoccupied with their own petty concerns. They ignore his attempts to talk about the crash, and when he mentions it along with complaints about their other conduct, they only hear the latter. In the scenes that follow, his thoughts turn to a vaguely misanthropic negativity. It’s impossible not to be disturbed by his musings about the fate of a pesky neighborhood dog, or his alleged memories of the humiliating past of a neighbor’s maid. The protagonist then launches into a pattern of aggressively obnoxious and even self-destructive behavior. This includes, among other things, coming on to the family’s teenage babysitter, antagonizing the neighbor at the center of the town’s social scene, and ruining the job prospects of a local boy with already thwarted ambitions. Before long, the man’s wife begins to seriously entertain the prospect of leaving him, and she doesn’t even know about the babysitter. Cheever takes the opening comic scenario, and he turns it inside out into a skewed metaphor for the man’s life. The fellow survives the crash at the story’s start, but will he survive his compulsion to crash the life he’s built for himself, as well as destroy his self-respect as a decent person? Like all of Cheever’s fiction, the story is sleekly written and beautifully paced. His capacity for constructing tropes from the details of the story’s milieu remains remarkable. What sets it apart is that Cheever’s mordant humor has never been sharper or more subtle. The story is funny, shocking, and even sinister by turns, and it feels all of a piece. Cheever first published the story in the November 20, 1954 issue of The New Yorker, and it is featured in The Stories of John Cheever collection.

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