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Knowing John Cheever

"American short story writer and novelist, called the "Chekhov of the suburbs". Cheever's main theme was the spiritual and emotional emptiness of life. He especially described the manners and morals of middle-class, suburban America, with an ironic humour which softened his basically dark vision. Although he often used his family as material, his daughter Susan Cheever has reminded that "of course none of us expected accuracy from my father. He made his living by making up stories." (Reprinted with permission pending)

I grew up in Westchester County, New York, in a town called Ossining. We lived in the rural part of the village, on a winding, idyllic country lane called Spring Valley Road. (Other roads in the area were Hawks Lane, Apple Bee Farms Road, Cedar Lane… you get the idea.)

While it was isolated in a sense from things like supermarkets, shops (and people!) it did afford a unique experience through this dichotomy: while it was very much "country living" with lakes, woods, waterfalls, ponds, frogs, lizards, fishing, deer, nature trails (not to mention skating, sleighriding
and shoveling icy steps in the winter while tossing rock salt), it was still just a scant 40 minutes or so from New York City. So while you might have been lazily fishing for sunnies and blue gills at three o’clock on a summer afternoon, that evening you could be at a Broadway Show. Or at a Met game. A bright winter day spent clearing the lake to skate and play, could end up that night at Madison Square Garden watching the New York Rangers hockey team. All in all, an interesting environment to grow up in.

It was because of this "best of both world’s" situation that certain notable people became attracted to the area. Jackie Gleason, for one. Other actors. Writers. Thinkers. Even Peter Frampton (on the heels of the blockbuster album "Frampton Comes Alive") all escaped to the these woods for solace, privacy and the knowledge that New York City was still within reach.)

But it was one neighbor in particular who made the biggest impression on me. His name was John Cheever and, though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, he was one America’s great short story writers and novelists.

I had decided early on in life that I wanted to be a writer, I think because of one pivotal experience. In the 4th grade, I had written a short story that my teacher, Miss Tina Rinaldi, really seemed to like. To a point in fact where she actually notified my parents to encourage them to encourge me in this arena--and even mentioned it to a couple of other teachers (Miss Duff, I remember, got very excited.) For me, seeing a teacher become that interested in something was significant—and its effect lasts to this day. So, from that moment on, I was set. Come hell or high water, I wanted to be a writer. (A fallback I’d use many times when things like math grades suffered—"Hey… who needs math… I’m gonna be a writer.")

So on about 1975 or 1976 (I was about 14), my mom suggested (after having heard me squawk about writing for a few years) that I drop a note to a man who lived down the road apiece. A writer named John Cheever, to see if he could offer me any advice. So I did. I wrote few simple sentences to someone I’d never heard of, asking for some guidance. And then, just a few days later, I got a neatly typed note that read (This has been committed to memory since I opened the envelope):

Dear Chris Epting:

It is nice to know that there is another writer living in the neighborhood. I will call you one day soon and then maybe we can take a walk and talk about writing.

(signed)
John Cheever

I could tell from my parent’s reaction that this was a big deal. (I think there’s something about seeing adults get genuinely excited, acting almost like kids, that impresses a young person. It feels incongruous, but in a good way.)

Just several days later the phone in our house rang. My mom said it was for me. But she looked different. Clearly, this was not one of my pals John Mungo or Tommy Monohan calling, She was excited about this call, and watched closely as I took the receiver…

"Hello?"
"Yes, Chris…" a rich, weathered, New England-accented voice began…"This is John Cheever."

END OF PART ONE
PART TWO

 

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