Dichotomy

There is a passage in John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” that has always haunted me. (The story, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, can be found in The Stories of John Cheever. It’s narrated by a middle-aged high school teacher, an optimistic and unreflecting man. The setting is a family home on the shore of a Massachusetts island, where the narrator’s mother and siblings get together for a summer holiday. Three of the siblings get along reasonably well, but the fourth, Lawrence, is disliked by everyone because of his pessimism. The siblings refer to him, variously, as “Tifty,” “Croaker,” and “Little Jesus.”) Near the end of the story, the narrator tries to talk Lawrence out of his gloominess:

I let him get ahead again and I walked behind him, looking at his shoulders and thinking of all the goodbyes he had made. When Father drowned, he went to church and said goodbye to Father. It was only three years later that he concluded that Mother was frivolous and said goodbye to her. In his freshman year at college, he had been good friends with his roommate, but the man drank too much, and at the beginning of the spring term Lawrence changed roommates and said goodbye to his friend. When he had been in college for two years, he concluded that the atmosphere was too sequestered and he said goodbye to Yale. He enrolled at Columbia and got his law degree there, but he found his first employer dishonest and at the end of six months he said goodbye to a good job. He married Ruth in City Hall and said goodbye to the Protestant Episcopal Church; they went to live on a back street in Tuckahoe and said goodbye to the middle class. In 1938, he went to Washington to work as a government lawyer, saying goodbye to private enterprise, but after eight months in Washington he concluded that the Roosevelt administration was sentimental and he said goodbye to it. They left Washington for a suburb of Chicago, where he said goodbye to his neighbors, one by one, on counts of drunkenness, boorishness, and stupidity. He said goodbye to Chicago and went to Kansas; he said goodbye to Cleveland and come East again, stopping at Laud’s Head long enough to say goodbye to the sea. It was elegiac and it was bigoted and narrow, it mistook circumspection for character, and I wanted to help him. “Come out of it,” I said. “Come out of it, Tifty.”

I have seemingly nothing in common with Lawrence, not even this tendency to say goodbye to everyone and everything. And yet the impulse behind his saying goodbye is one that I recognize, one that I have lived with and struggled with for many years. I think it comes from expecting so much from oneself, from others, from the world in general, which is nothing if not a guarantee of disappointment. But I also have moments when I identify with the narrator, who seems to enjoy the life he has—he swims, plays tennis, goes to a party with his wife, and generally tries to have a good time—without expecting anything else. By the end of “Goodbye, My Brother,” the narrator lashes out at Lawrence, who leaves the island. Only then does the narrator reflect:

Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming — Diana and Helen — and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”

One brother is consumed with obsessive rumination; the other is after constant gratification. One is given to despair; the other to hope. One lives in the past; the other in the present. Perhaps the reason I identify with both is that I see myself in both.

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