Thursday, November 10, 2016
John Cheever is famous for his artful midcentury short stories of suburban angst, and somehow became a comical figure ripe for puncturing. The root cause is probably a toss-up between his closeted bisexuality and the insistence with which he was taught to a generation of high school and college students, but one episode of Seinfeld also managed to do a lot of damage. I've always found Cheever a mixed bag and haven't read him that much, but when he's good he's good. This is one of his most anthologized stories. Published in 1947, it starts 10 years earlier, when Jack Lorey and Joan Harris, who are both from the same town in Ohio, happen to move to New York at the same time. In their first year they see a lot of one another, meeting for dinner or drinks or at parties. It's never a romantic involvement, but more the kind of alliance young people make when they are alone and new to a big city. After the first year they see less of one another, but over the years of the story they always seem to stay in touch one way or another. Among other things, World War II intrudes on their lives and then ends. Both have comically inept love lives. At the end of the story Jack is twice divorced, with at least one child, and "paying alimony to two wives." Joan's history is an even more ludicrous succession of a Swedish count, a drunken raging German, a hustler or con artist named Pete, and others. It's refreshing in some ways to realize these types of confused adult lives were not invented in the '60s, '70s, and after. A version of them has always been around, and certainly Jack and Joan are familiar people. From the first sentence, Jack—who is the main focus of the third-person narrative—thinks of Joan as "The Widow." As much as anything it's because she's a bit of a bohemian hipster, always wearing black. But the conceit is also taken to comically overblown proportions by the end of the story, when they have something like a falling-out, which again is offered and accepted as one of the ways these irresolute and tentative urban friendships can go, especially the non-roommate kind between a man and woman. It is just another alliance in the long trajectory of adult life to death. In that way, "Torch Song" is not dated at all. It's a vivid portrait of lives with no particular compass, and it looks a lot like exactly what we know.
Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine