A special project for the Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, T. C. Boyle writes about John Cheever reading from “The Death of Justina.” It was recorded at 92Y on March 22, 1964.
Posted on Nov 12, 2013
Here comes John Cheever, aged fifty-two, fresh and frisky with the mostly positive reviews and strong sales of The Wapshot Scandal and his face about to appear on the cover of Time Magazine. After a stirring introduction by Hortense Calisher, he’s briefly bewildered at the microphone and clearly nervous in front of an admiring crowd. His accent (described by one writer as “plummy faux-Brahmin”) seems exaggerated as he makes his opening comments, but settles into something more like his normal speaking voice as he begins reading. He’s an awkward reader, plowing through his touchstone story, “The Death of Justina,” without pausing for effect or to allow the audience to absorb the beauty and wit of the writing. Indeed, we are a full two pages into the text before the audience begins to respond—with laughter, the very best kind of applause—and Cheever settles in further. This is where the experience deepens and Cheever becomes himself.
Who said a writer must be an actor? Most writers are introverts, in fact, which is why they’ve chosen the lonely profession of working in isolation, sitting in a room half the day and raking through the coals of emotion recollected in anything but tranquility. What Cheever gives us here is a glimpse into himself, into his own characterization of Moses, his sarcastic and yet elevated narrator, a man who can write those wicked Elixircol commercials and at the same time stand outside the story to give us such disquisitions on life, literature and nature as this: “Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing.”
Is this the case? Cheever employs a formal introduction here, as in “Goodbye, My Brother,” as a way of bruiting a proposition which the story will address and, of course, of piquing the reader/auditor’s curiosity: is it so or is it not? The story itself stands in affirmation of art’s power, and yet Justina’s death, as absurdly as it is presented, nonetheless reminds us of the chaos that defines our lives in a random universe. But it is hilarious, this laughing in the face of death (“It seems that you not only can’t have a funeral home in Zone B—you can’t bury anything there and you can’t die there”). And the audience is with Cheever now, the wash of laughter becoming increasingly plangent from this point on.
John once told me that all good fiction is experimental and adduced this story of his in evidence. Of course, he’s right. Just listen to the famous final sequence, in which he presents the twenty-third Psalm complete and see how it reflects on the proposition put forth in the opening paragraph. What makes the effect all the more powerful is the strange and arresting dream sequence that precedes it and sets it up, a vision of chaos and nihilism and the emptiness of modern life (and death) sans the grace of art and tradition. “The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing.” Is this a fiction? No matter. It is deeply consoling. And yes, it is art, art of the very highest order.
T. C. Boyle’s new book is Stories II, the second volume of his Collected Stories.