Monday, August 20, 2012

Short Take: "Reunion," John Cheever

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

“Reunion,” a 1962 short story by John Cheever, is an extremely haunting piece. Its power doesn’t come from the action it depicts. The impact is from the questions one is left with after it ends. The narrator is a man looking back on the last time he saw his father. He was a teenager, his parents had been divorced for three years, and he was in between trains at New York’s Grand Central Station. The two haven’t seen each other since the divorce, but they arranged to meet during the stopover. At first glance, the father lives up to the boy’s idealized image of him. Everything about him says successful businessman: well dressed, perfectly groomed, and he’s even punctual. But another side is revealed when the two try to find a restaurant. They are refused service in place after place due to the father’s boorish--and possibly drunken--insistence on dealing with the staff in a condescending mock-formal manner. The father’s efforts at conversation with his son are also off-putting. He never asks about the boy’s life and interests. All he can think to talk about is baseball. In short, the father doesn’t interact with people so much as he just goes through the motions. His efforts reflect a narcissistic disdain for others that can’t help but alienate them. The story may at first seem a sketch. The plotting lacks a dramatic arc, and the piece ends very abruptly. What brings it together is the suggestion of a quandary in the narrator’s mind. One passage in particular stands out: “I felt that he was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom. I knew that when I was grown I would be something like him; I would have to plan my campaigns within his limitations.” One can’t help but wonder how the narrator would echo his father’s behavior upon growing older, and one is disturbed by his view that these are tendencies he can only manage, not change. The reader is implicitly left with the question of one’s character being a prison even if one can see the bars. It’s a hard possibility to face, yet one can’t help considering it again and again. The story sneaks up on one, and it’s impossible to shake. It first appeared in the October 27, 1962 issue of The New Yorker, and is included in The Stories of John Cheever collection.

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