A special project for the 92Y 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 his short story “The Death of Justina.” It was recorded at 92Y on March 22, 1964. Boyle studied with John Cheever at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1973. He once told NPR about the experience:
John was then 61 years old, which seemed to me preposterously old at the time (as you can imagine, I’ve since modified my view), and he seemed rather frail and diminished into the bargain. I had read his stories — most of them — in a desultory way, but in that era of scintillating narrative experimentation they struck me as being somewhat antiquated, solid stories of a bygone era. The term “experimental” was my mantra, but John was having none of it. His own stories were experimental, he insisted, as was all good fiction, but I didn’t believe him. In the blind and arrogant way of the young, I felt I knew better.
But oh, how wrong I was! That came home to me in force five years later, when he published his collected stories (The Stories of John Cheever, 1978, winner of that year’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction), a volume of 61 short stories I have re-read for its comfort and enduring beauty every few years since.
There is a great, questing soul alive everywhere in these stories, a soul trying to come to grips with the parameters of human experience amid the ravishing beauty of nature. Few prose writers can touch Cheever for the painterly precision of his descriptions, and the reward of them too — his characters, locked in the struggles of suburban and familial angst, regularly experience moments of transcendence and rebirth in nature.
We have also posted video of T. C. Boyle’s recent reading at 92Y last month.