Ron Rosenbaum

This Month's Moment of Beauty--From John Cheever

I don’t know about you, but Cheever gets to me. Maybe I’m a sucker for beautiful melancholy or melancholy beauty. I don’t know which the following passage is, but it always had a kind of power over me. The first words of Bullet Park:

‘Paint me a small railroad stattion, then, ten minutes before dark.”

Paint me: it suddenly occurred to me that he was addressing this to someone specific, to a painter. To Edward Hopper, the Cheever of the visual arts?

Because what follows is pure Hopper through the lense of Cheever:

Remember, the station ten minutes before dark. Ten minutes all too exactly!

“The architecture of the station is oddly informal, gloomy but unserious, and mostly resembles a pergola, cottage or summer house although this is a climate of harsh winters. The lamps along the platform burn with a nearly palpable plaintiveness. The setting seems in some way to be at the heart of the matter.”

The heart of the matter! Not an accident, I think more likely a conscious tribute to that other master of melancholy: Graham Greeene, in the title of (I believe) his greatest, indeed his most beautifully melancholy work.

And “the lamps along the platform…”. Kills me The palpable plaintiveness! Just so. I feel it all too often. For a while after my intitial enchantment with Cheever, I allowed the disenchantment, the alcoholism of the journals, etc. make me think he was “merely” the poet of the hangover. But he’s so much more. His hangovers like Greene’s are painfully spirtual, or rather trials of the spirit. Agony of the soul that no Alka-seltzer can salve.

“You wake in a Pullman bedroom at three a.m. in a city the name of which you do not know and may never discover. A man stands on a platform with a child on his shoulders. They are waving good bye to some traveler, but what is the child doing up so late, and why is the man crying?”

Unbearable. But unbelievably beautiful in some sad way too: the masterful compression of that station platform tableau. A novel in itself.

And as if to numb us to the pain he draws back:

“On a siding beyond the platform there is a lighted dining car where a waiter sits alone at a table adding up his accounts. Beyond this is a water tower and beyond this is a well-lighted and empty street.”

Whew.The journey through the hell of melancholy is over. You’ve come to the “well lighted and empty street”. A tirubte to “A Clean Well Lighted Place”? A respite from darkness and the sorrow of human being.

I don’t know. I think it’s somehow beautiful if only in its truth.