You need to work up to Falconer, but it’s weird Cheever in a nutshell. Inspired by the time he spent teaching at Sing Sing, Falconer is a novel about a college professor and drug addict serving time in prison for fratricide. But really it’s about everything, and it’s one of the times that Cheever, who was closeted for much of his life (his sexuality being the source of much angst in his journals and biographies), wrote fully about a romantic relationship between two men.
“The Swimmer,” The Stories of John Cheever
If you get one book by John Cheever, it needs to be The Stories of John Cheever. It has some of his most famous, devastating work, including “The Enormous Radio” and “Goodbye, My Brother.” But “The Swimmer” is, for good reason, the masterpiece. It’s about a man going home in the suburbs, with a neat trick: he’ll swim his way through the backyard pools. But with that start, it becomes so much more.
The story has lived a long life. It became a surreal 1968 film with Burt Lancaster. There’s a recording of Cheever himself reading it at the 92Y, which is basically the author butchering his own work with his unique yawp of a voice, but it’s worth listening to for a second, if only to hear how Cheever fashioned some sort of Boston Brahmin/educated Englishman hybrid out of his natural hometown penchant for Mark Wahlberg-esque vowels.
The Wapshot Chronicle
A good place to begin for the average Cheever reader, The Wapshot Chronicle feels like a novel-from-life (because plot, what is plot? not for WASPS), following the highs and lows of the Wapshots of St. Botolphs (a stand-in for towns south of Boston and the New England of Cheever’s mind), as they make their way in a world not particularly amenable to their quirky WASP ways. It’s funny and meandering, given to moments of extreme beauty: the mystery of Cheever’s writing in a nutshell.