- Troop TrainThe Lost army Story of John Cheever
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In 1934 John Cheever was living in a squalid six-by-eight, bedbug-infested apartment on Hudson Street in New York City. Its plaster-patched walls, limp curtains, and drooping mattress on a spindly iron frame were so ramshackle that his friend Walker Evans photographed it as an example of Depression-era deprivation. It was, in fact a reasonable representation of Cheever’s life at the time. He was living on a weekly allowance of ten dollars from his brother, Fred, and his only valuable possession was a typewriter with a worn ribbon. He was so near starvation that he often couldn’t summon the energy to write. To pass the time, he would lie on his bed that stank of lice disinfectant, smoke scavenged cigarette butts, and read the paper or just stare at the ceiling. Other times he sat in Washington Square with a friend and discussed the phases of starvation. He felt like a bum. All he had going for him were his love of writing and the unfailing courage—a mulish persistence, his family called it—to pursue a writing career despite the fact that it was one of the most challenging times in American history to make a living at it. The Depression had decreased the number of commercial magazines publishing fiction, and the ones that still did paid inconsequential fees. Yet Cheever felt the risk of being “hungry, artistic, worried, and broke” was worth it. He was acquainted with several people engaged in similar artistic struggles, including Evans, James Agee, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, and E. E. Cummings.
Off and on, Evans paid Cheever twenty dollars a week to work as a darkroom assistant and allowed him to shack up in his basement studio a couple of blocks east of the Hudson. With the reemergence of oppressive regimes throughout Europe and Asia, both men worried that the country was drifting helplessly from one Great War to the next and that they were destined to be soldiers. Evans was resigned to the fact that he would be killed, and Cheever shared his fear.
The world might be sliding toward disaster, but poverty, loneliness, and self-doubt were Cheever’s primary preoccupations. His hand-to-mouth lifestyle made him feel rootless and doomed. He searched for a job on a magazine or newspaper, but his lack of a high school or college diploma was a hindrance; he had few saleable skills other than his ability to put together a sentence. He managed occasional work with MGM, writing plot synopses for five dollars a book, but even that work was spotty, and he would go weeks without a paycheck. The breaks in synopsis writing did, however, give him time to continue working on his own fiction. [End Page 116]
His friend and mentor Malcolm Cowley, who published Cheever’s first story in 1930 in the New Republic and worked as an assistant editor there, advised him to try to write specifically for the magazine markets. Cowley challenged him to compose quickly and limit his stories to no more than 1,000 words. Cheever trusted Cowley’s advice and already suspected that his work was too self-consciously arty. He wrote four very short stories in rapid succession; three were published: one by Cowley in the New Republic, another in Parade, and a third by Katharine White at the New Yorker. His New Yorker publication was the start of a relationship that would span more than forty years and nearly 120 stories.
Cheever’s first New Yorker story, “Buffalo,” was a brief sketch of a young man smitten by a waitress. It captured the New Yorker style of the era—a character-driven piece told in a flat, declarative style with a slight twist at the end. Suddenly flush with cash and overjoyed with his success, Cheever celebrated with a bottle of good scotch that he passed among his friends...