Long ago, when the late author John Cheever wound up on the cover of TIME magazine — it was the early 60s, I believe — I decided to read his work and grew especially fond of a fairly short short story called, “A Vision of the World.” It begins, “This is being written in another seaside cottage on another coast. Gin and whisky have bitten rings in the table where I sit.”
Sounds like a rental. Our narrator continues….
“The light is dim. On the wall there is a colored lithograph of a kitten wearing a flowered hat, a silk dress, and white gloves. The air is musty….”
Yes, definitely a rental. Feel like I’ve been there, right down to the cat lithograph. And the story wanders on for six bizarre but pleasant, absurd but bracing pages that I invite you to visit sometime, along with Cheever’s other wonderful stories.
“A Vision of the World” is ultimately the musings of a suburban man wending his way — very comically — toward earthly peace and reconciliation, though you have a clear sense of disorder in his crazy life. He is a momentary refugee from the class conscious upwardly mobile world of American suburbia. One might think he seems a little tipsy but it’s not clear that the gin and whiskey rings on the table of this seaside cottage were made by him. He seems to be alone, and it is in solitude that men and women best commune with the universe, don’t you think?
But then, why is he alone? Did those he loves dispel him, at least briefly, from their midst?
It all ends as our narrator, after a glass of milk and a sleeping pill, finds himself awakened by the sound of rain. “I think of some plumber,” he writes,” who, waked by the rain, will smile at a vision of the world in which all the drains are miraculously cleansed and free….And I know that the sound of the rain will wake some lovers and that its sound will seem to be a part of that force that has thrust them into one another’s arms. Then I sit up in bed and exclaim aloud to myself, ‘Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!’ The words seem to have the colors of the earth, and as I recite them I feel my hopefulness mount until I am contended and at peace with the night.”
I want that vision! I may dispense with the milk and sleeping pill and hope it overtakes me merely at the sound of the rain.
Bravo, John Cheever! And, by the way, my copy of his collected stories is autographed by the author, thanks to a good friend who met him at a book-signing party and thought of me. It pleases me to know that the master held this very volume in his hands. And though I never met him, I’ll always have, in black felt tip on the very first page, his salutation, “to Greg Wayland, with cordial regards,” as I read and re-read “A Vision of the World” and several other stories, enjoying especially a “A Country Husband”, once voted one of the best short stories of the 20th Century. It is every bit as delightfully quirky as everything else Cheever wrote and ends with yet another vision of the world “where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.”
No, they were not pink elephants, so far as I know.