Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"The Enormous Radio" by John Cheever

"The Enormous Radio" by John Cheever (8 pages, 1953, originally published in The New Yorker)

John Cheever (1912 to 1982-Quincy, Massachusetts) is probably most highly regarded now for his short stories which were mostly set in New York City and the American North East region.   He received a Pulitzer Price in 1979.   His two most famous novels are The Falconer and The Wapshot Scandal.   I have never read his work before now nor have I see his novels posted about on any of the blogs I follow.  The last time I heard a reference to John Cheever was, I admit, in an episode of the Seinfled show.

"The Enormous Radio" is often  mentioned as one of Cheever's best short stories.   It is set in a big American city which I think we are to take as New York City.   The time frame is not given but as radios occupy the place TVs do now in American lives I think it set in the 1940s.   It centers on a married couple, a quite ordinary couple with nothing it seems remarkable about them.   The prose of Cheever is pleasant and easy to read.   He starts the story out with a description of the couple it is about.

Jim and Irene Wescott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins.  They were the parents of two young children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theater on an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday  to live in Westchester.  

Their big passion was listening to the radio,   especially Irene who stayed at home with the children  while Jim worked.   This was in the day when radios were big and had beautiful wood cabinets.   Their old radio was not working well at all so Jim bought a new one for his wife.  (To relate, imagine a super hot computer being delivered to replace  to replace a five year old one and we can sense what this means to the family.)

The wife is at first intimidated by the many dials and knobs on the radio.   Then Irene begins to notice something very odd.   She can hear voices coming out of the radio.   After a while they realize the voices belong to other people who live in the same building they do.

The Westcotts overheard that evening a monologue on salmon fishing in Canada, a bridge game, running comments on home movies of what had apparently been a fortnight at Sea Island, and a bitter family quarrel about an overdraft at the bank.

Irene at first enjoys her eavesdropping  but soon she begins to be overwhelmed by the sadness in the conversations she hears and the shocking things she learns about her neighbors.    Irene begins to tell her husband how shocked she is by what she has learned about the other wives in the building:  one woman is having an affair with the hideous apartment maintenance man, one woman who seems so nice appears to be a prostitute, and one had an abortion behind her husband's back, etc.   Everyday she tells her husband what she hears.   I will not tell any more of the plot.   It is in the tradition that suggests a short story needs a surprise or twist at the end.

To me, "The Enormous Radio" was an enjoyable read.     It is not comparable to Katherine Mansfield, Kate Chopin,  or Flannery O'Conner but it was fun, easy to read and made me think a bit and did do a good job of building up a world in a few pages.   Ok is is not high art etc but sometimes you would rather watch the Seinfeld show than the highest rated BBC or PBS drama!

Please leave your suggestions as to good short stories (that I can read online) in a comment and my great thanks for the many very good ideasI have already gotten.

Mel u


JoAnn said...

I really liked Cheever's story The Swimmer - very strange and surreal! Would be interested in you thoughts.

The Wapshot Chronicle was very good, too. Read it around the time I started blogging, but just realized I never got around to reviewing it.

Journey said...

Oh, I have this huge book of Cheever's short stories lying here on (or sometimes beside) my table for weeks now and I want to read them!
I read some of Cheever's stories ages ago and I would love to go there again, I loved his little worlds, the atmosphere he managed to create. :) I have to start reading them stories! :)