Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" John Cheever

This is one of John Cheever's most well-known short stories and you can find it online in the New Yorker archives. There a ton of discussion about it as well as Ph.D dissertations that consider it. It offers a critique of the new suburbia that was going on at the time. 

It begins when a young man, working his way up in the plastic industry, is sent to fire a man well above him in the pecking order. What he sees at the man's apartment embarrasses the man who manages to pull himself together and then fires Johnny as a witness to his disgrace. Johnny is very given to feeling sorry for himself, is estranged from his mother, and somewhat at odds with most everyone. Now struggling to keep up his life-style, he robs his next door neighbor of his wallet. He does this at night while they are sleeping in the same room as the wallet.  

Johnny thinks a lot about money, about his privileged childhood, about the unfairness of what's happened to him. When his birthday comes and his children give  him a ladder, he immediately ties it into his being a second-story man although of course, the kids don't know about that. His poor behavior sparks a fight with his wife. The story ends with his returning the money and almost getting caught by a police car. 

Now there is a lot more to it than this but so much of it is interior thoughts it is hard to sum up. Some of it is amusing and some of it is pathetic. It is both a defense and a critique of the banlieue. Cheever is a master of the literary short story.

"Shady Hill, as I say a banlieue, and open to criticism by city planners, adventurers and lyric poets, but if you work in the city and have children to raise, I can't think of a better place."

Banlieue is the French word for suburb. 

Kevin Tipple

Jerry House   


George Kelley

Richard Robinson 

Matt Paust 


Steven A. Oerkfitz said...

I read the Collected Stories of John Cheever decades ago and was very impressed with Cheever's writing.
This is one of his best.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My favorite is "The Enormous Radio."

Margot Kinberg said...

Ooh, a Cheever! Nice choice, Patti!

Jeff Meyerson said...

A few years ago (too lazy to look it up, but it was before 2015) I corrected that omission by reading Cheever's COLLECTED STORIES. Not sure exactly what I was expecting, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

Mathew Paust said...

I received this collection as a gift 30-some years ago. Have forgotten most of the stories, including this one. In fact, the only one that sticks is the guy who does a party trick of leaping over furniture placed as obstacles, a way of reminding everyone of his eternal youth. Not sure why that one stuck, but the idea comes to mind more and more as I creep toward increpitude.

Jeff Meyerson said...

Currently reading (after George mentioned him) Robert Walser's early BERLIN STORIES, a pleasant enough collection of his early (1907 on) short stories written after he moved to Berlin. They are all quite short, not particularly memorable but easy to read. Also reading Michael Chabon's first collection, A MODEL WORLD. The second half of the book (which was published when he was 27) is a clearly autobiographically based series of connected stories about a boy going through his parents' divorce (as Chabon did when he was 11). The collection is readable and glib, well written if not deep. The personal stories in the second half are more interesting to me.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I just picked up (from my library free cart) KAVALIER AND CLAY. This is the third time I have bought this book. I always seem to lose it or give it away. Perhaps it was my own copy I picked up. Looking for A MODEL WORLD.

George said...

I've read Cheever's COLLECTED STORIES and his novels. The short stories are better than then novels (in my opinion). Cheever was a tormented writer and much of his work shows it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, much better for sure. Although it has been years since I read his novels so I probably shouldn't weigh in.

Todd Mason said...

"The Enormous Radio" does stick with one. Homing in on one of Cheever's most blatant fantasies, there, Patti! (And like much of the best fantasy, using the fantastic to illustrate home truth.)

Rick Robinson said...

I have this book, but don't remember the story. Time to reread!

TracyK said...

I haven't read anything by Cheever, will have to look for some of his stories.