On John Cheever

Ann Hood

“Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.”— John Cheever, “A Country Husband”

It is as I know you know, the last line of John Cheever’s short story “The Country Husband”. The first time I read that story, I reached the final sentence and it knocked the breath out of me. So gorgeous, so fabulist, so puzzling. I read and re-read the story, in which Francis Weed survives a plane crash and cannot get his family to care about it. The setting is the suburbs, as only Cheever can depict the suburbs. (“The village hangs, morally and economically, from a thread. But it hangs by its thread in the evening light,” Cheever writes in the same story) My professor in college interpreted the final line for us as a reminder of eternity. But eventually, I came to see the final line as a way to show the reader greatness contrasted against the shallowness that Weed sees as he navigates the world of the story. However, over time its meaning has changed yet again. I now see it as Cheever’s exaltation of life in the suburbs, and as Weed’s personal isolation from that happiness. I suspect that in five or ten years, I will have yet another way to read that sentence, and this is precisely why it is such a great sentence. In tone and style, it is completely opposite of the rest of the story. It forces us to step back and consider its meaning. As a writer, it reminds me not only to consider each word, each sentence, but to take risks when I write.

Ann Hood is the author of the novels, The Knitting Circle and The Red Thread, as well as the memoir, Comfort: A Journey through Grief, which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and chosen as one of the top ten non-fiction books of 2008 by Entertainment Weekly.