What's All This Then?

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The Stories
of John Cheever

by John Cheever

Field-Tested by Michael Bierut

at Grand Central Terminal, New York City, New York

Twenty-five years ago, I moved to New York with the girl I was engaged to. I still remember how it felt to be a newcomer in Manhattan. "The faces that passed them seemed purposeful and intent, as if they all belonged to people who were pursuing the destinies of great industries," wrote John Cheever in “O City of Broken Dreams” about another young couple arriving in Gotham to seek their fortunes. We even found an apartment like the room occupied by the young couple in that story, with a window facing a brick wall and the noise of traffic drifting in "like the irresistible and titanic voice of life itself." We got married a month later and I often told my wife, in those days, that I was the happiest man in New York.

Four years later, like so many of Cheever's protagonists, we moved to suburbia: Westchester County, in a Hudson River town a few stops on the train line south of the village where the writer himself made his home. “Ovid in Ossining,” Time Magazine dubbed him, and his stories do make a kind of tragic poetry out of the languid rhythms of American suburban life.

My favorites are the eight that had originally been published in the 1961 collection, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.” Even in the mid-eighties, 25 years later, their setting, a place where everyone seems to have “a nice house with a garden and a place outside for cooking meat” seemed familiar,: was it just a coincidence that our town, Sleepy Hollow, shared the same initial letters? I had grown up in the suburbs, was thrilled to have escaped, and was a little alarmed at having been sucked back in while still in my twenties. Stories like “The Sorrows of Gin,” “The Five-Forty-Eight,” and “O Youth and Beauty,” filled with adultery and dissolution, describing a seemingly placid village that nonetheless “hangs, morally and economically from a thread” may have been unnerving to many complacent readers, but I found in them reassurance that the cheerful place I called home had untold, excitingly murky depths. It was only much later, rereading Cheever's most famous story, “The Swimmer,” that I realized that what I had thought was simply a zany fantasy - its protagonist decides to traverse Westchester County by swimming in succession through his neighbors' backyard pools - was actually, among other things, a depressingly accurate parable about alcoholism.

Now that I'm at the right age, I find Cheever properly depressing. Key to the Cheever worldview is the sense of displacement that is peculiar to the commuter's life, the contrast between working in the city and living in the country. Over the last 20 years, that 52-minute ride, repeated ten times a week, has been a reliable constant: a somnolent riverfront train platform on one end, and on the other, New York's greatest piece of architecture, Grand Central Terminal. And perhaps it's Grand Central, rather than a sun-dappled suburban patio, that would make the best place to read Cheever.

Warren & Wetmore's 1913 masterpiece was pretty grimy when my commute began, but it's since been beautifully restored. The changes have been welcome, I suppose, but make for a less-than-ideal time machine if the destination is 1961. The one exception is the time-honored restaurant on the lower level, The Oyster Bar. The food is great, the vaulted Gustavino tiled ceilings are extraordinary, and amidst the tumult, you can read in solitude while everyone around you hurries to make the 5:32 to their own personal Shady Hill, wherever it may be.

Michael Bierut is a partner in the New York office of Pentagram. He is a senior critic in graphic design at the Yale School of Art and a founding writer for Design Observer. This October, Michael will receive the Design Mind Award from The Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

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