Friday, August 3, 2012

Short Take: "Goodbye, My Brother," John Cheever

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

John Cheever's terrific short story "Goodbye, My Brother" renders an uncomfortable truth about family bonds. They are often nothing more than pretense, and maintaining that pretense is the only connection family members may have. The narrator is a Long Island schoolteacher whose family maintains a summer home on a small island off the Massachusetts coast. He and his mother, sister, and two brothers have largely gone their separate ways over the years, but during his current vacation all will be together at the island house. The arrival of the youngest brother causes everyone the most anxiety. He became estranged from the others since growing up, and he does nothing to ingratiate himself with them now. He's hostile to everyone, although it quickly becomes clear that he is the only one who isn't in denial about the family's dysfunction. The tension between him and the others doesn't come from disagreement. It's borne of his refusal to participate in the others' illusions. One can't help but admire Cheever's powerful handling of the subject. He's a virtuoso storyteller. He immediately takes one inside his characters, and the story is immaculately paced. It quietly builds to a devastating climax. Cheever also has a knack for effective, thematically resonant tropes--the nostalgia costume party, the house that will eventually fall into the sea, and many others--that are completely in accord with the story's setting. Cheever presents it all with what may be the most elegant prose style in American fiction. The story was originally published in the August 25, 1951 issue of The New Yorker, and is included in The Stories of John Cheever collection.

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