by Chris Epting
Literature has been the salvation of the damned, literature has inspired and guided lovers, routed despair and can perhaps in this case save the world. – John Cheever
In a California bookstore recently, I saw a copy of The Short Stories of John Cheever, my all-time favorite collection of short fiction. On the table near it was a book that I wrote called James Dean Died Here. Light years apart in terms of impact and importance, still, seeing the two books near each other gave me a special feeling; a deep connection to a past chapter in my life.
It was 1975 up in Westchester County, New York, in a town called Ossining. Ossining’s original name, “Sing Sing,” was named after the Native American Sinck Sinck tribe from whom the land was purchased in 1685. As you might know, Sing Sing is also the name of the famed local prison. We lived in the rural part of town, in the forest on a winding, idyllic country lane called Spring Valley Road. (Other roads in the area were Hawks Lane, Apple Bee Farms Road, Cedar Lane… you get the picture.)
I was about 13 years old and had decided that I wanted to be a writer (especially if the baseball player thing didn’t work out). When I announced this to my parents, my mom suggested I write a neighbor of ours to see if he might be able to supply some professional guidance. His name was John Cheever, and all I knew of him was that my parents loved his writing and several of his books were on the shelves in our living room library (The Wapshot Chronicleis the one that jumps out in my mind). My mom’s idea seemed reasonable enough so I wrote Mr. Cheever a short note asking if I might be able to ask him a few questions some day. Just a couple of days later, the following letter arrived at our house:
Dear Chris Epting:
It is nice to know that there is another writer living in the neighborhood. I will call you one day soon and then maybe we can take a walk and talk about writing.
And the very next day, he called my house. “Yes, Chris…” a rich New England-accented voice began, “this is John Cheever.” What a unique way to be introduced to one of the greatest fiction writers in American literary history.
Armed with a few school writing samples, I went to his house the next day and spent several hours there. I listened to him, I asked questions, I watched him smoke tons of filterless cigarettes, I drank Coke and I listened to his Beatles records with him. But then it was time for Little League practice. But it was okay. I’d be back many other times in the next several years to talk about writing.
John Cheever became a mentor to me until his death in 1982. He’d review my work, (scribbling copious notes in red felt tip marker across my pages), take the occasional walk with me and once even personally called a professor at my college to recommend me for a much-in-demand writing course. Naturally the call helped secure my place in the class (it had been his idea to call after I described the situation) and it wasn’t until later in life that I could appreciate the absurdity of the moment: a pompous college English professor with his own dreams of becoming a great American novelist getting a call from one of the true Lions of American fiction to vouch for student.
John Cheever lived in Ossining from 1951 until the time of his death. Over the years, the Quincy, Massachusetts native became iconic in his adopted city. He taught at Sing Sing prison, was part of a regular salon-style dinner group for years and even did readings at the local public library. Cheever was such a regular at the Highland Diner that his photo hung there, shrine-like for years after his death. He was everywhere, and he was nowhere; seen all over town but just as happy in his beautiful colonial home on Cedar Lane with his lovely wife Mary.
Once I’d known him for a couple of years, it finally hit me who he was – and what he represented to people. I was in the supermarket with my mom and at the checkout stand, there was that elegant, weathered face, on the cover of Newsweek magazine (after he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, Falconer). I was seeing Cheever later that day so I brought the copy with me. In his office, I showed it to him. He just nodded and I asked him something. I explained to him that when I first visited, I was not familiar with him. But now, over time, and especially with this magazine, it was clear to me he was very important. So I wanted to know: why grant me, a kid in the neighborhood, all of this precious time?
He laughed a little at that and explained that since his drinking problems in the last few years, he had looked for therapeutic outlets that might help him focus – and that helping a young writer was almost like medicine. (I learned later that he was completely dry the last seven years of his life – and those were the years I knew him). In addition to visiting at his home, I called him from college to chat from time to time. I’d bump into him taking long walks down Spring Valley Road on lazy summer days (or riding his beloved bicycle) and he’d always stop to talk and catch up.
I spoke to John Cheever less than two weeks before he died. I was away at school and while I knew he was ill with cancer, I didn’t know just how sick he was. There was an article I wanted to write about him and on the phone, in a ravaged voice, he told me as soon as he was feeling better we could talk more about it. Then I turned on the news one morning soon after and saw he was gone.
But as I’ve learned since, he’s still here – as all the greats remain. His stories continue to charm and captivate new readers every day. At the beautiful new Ossining Public Library at 53 Croton Avenue (next door to the former library site that Cheever would visit) Ossining’s “Chekhov of the Suburbs” is immortalized – the main reading room in the library is named for him (and Jane Clark, a longtime library staffer and friend of Mr. Cheever proudly keeps his legacy alive with photos, letters and wonderful personal stories about him).
In his lifetime, Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Medal for Literature. His short stories and novels, including The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal, Bullet Park, and Falconer (inspired by writing classes he taught at Sing Sing) remain vital examples of some of the world’s best 20th century fiction.
If you ever get the chance to visit Ossining, wherever you are in the village, know that he was probably right nearby at some point. If you make your way to the serene Teatown Lake near his home, be aware that he paused there along the road by the water more than once to sit by the rocks and talk to this young writer about craft and critique, while also mixing in a fair amount of baseball chatter (I still recommend to friends John Updike’s piece describing Ted Williams’s last at bat because Cheever told me about it, on Spring Valley Road – after I told him we’d lost our all star game earlier that day). Further on down the woodsy road, at the Teatown Lake Reservation, the ancient stone walls where Cheever would stop and rest are still there and everything remains as it was when he was here – exactly as I remember it as a teenager.
There’s still a diner at 191 N. Highland Avenue where Cheever could frequently be found. As the local library recounts:
Cheever was a regular at the Highland Diner where he’d arrive with a book or newspaper and look around for someone to talk to… He knew and was liked by so many people in the town that his family used to call him the ‘Mayor of Ossining.’ He never ran for office, of course, but there was an abortive movement in the wake of the Pulitzer to name a street after him. Cheever was pleased and self-deprecatory about this at the same time. He and Mary and the children sat around the dinner table thinking of what else might be named after him. ‘Let’s see,’ he proposed, ‘how about the John Cheever Memorial Dump?’
And Sing Sing Prison, where many a con was sent “Up the River” (the expression refers to the Hudson River on which the prison sits) is still in business. Located at 95 Broadway, today there’s even a prison museum on site (a safe distance from the criminals). This may be the most telling Cheever-related landmark in Ossining. While recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction in the mid-1970s, Cheever wrote Falconer by specifically drawing on his experience as a writing instructor here. This was a breakthrough book for Cheever, and so one must consider the influence the prison had in helping to re-establish Cheever’s force as a writer.
He taught here, and obviously, he learned here, too.
Back in the bookstore in California, I look down at John Cheever’s face on the cover of his book. I can hear his voice and I can see him lighting up another cigarette and asking me, “Did you see me on Dick Cavett with John Updike? What did you think? Is that something teenagers watch these days?”
I placed his book back down on the table, but I moved it right next to mine – connecting us one more time.
Recently, I drove once more past the Cheever’s house on Cedar Lane near Route 9A. Out on the road in front of their property, the old gray metal mailbox I remembered with the name Cheever hand-lettered in black paint had been updated. Peeking down the driveway and looking at the house set back against the woods, I could picture him getting into his red Volkswagen Rabbit to drive me home after that first visit. Then I thought back to what he told me at that meeting:
“Keep a journal, start today and don’t stop. It forces you to write and that’s good. Writers write, they don’t talkabout writing and a journal strengthens the muscle. So go. Write.”
I thought to myself, how lucky I was to have known someone so gifted and inspirational, someone who took the time to share some stories and advice – someone who gave some critique and company to, as he put it, “another writer living in the neighborhood.”
For more information on John Cheever in Ossining:
Chris Epting is the writer/photographer of 16 books, including Led Zeppelin Crashed Here: the Rock and Roll Landmarks of North America. Others include James Dean Died Here; Elvis Presley Passed Here and Roadside Baseball. The Birthplace Book comes out later this year from Stackpole Books. He is a frequent featured guest on numerous radio and television programs in the U.S. and abroad. He has contributed articles for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Westways, Travel + Leisure and Preservation magazine, and is the National Spokesman for the Hampton hotel Save-A-Landmark program. Chris lives in Huntington Beach, CA with his wife and their two children.
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