(CLASSIC: from The Stories of John Cheever, Penguin)
I would have liked to suggest a British writer, but finally have to admit that John Cheever’s very short story about a young man’s brief meeting with his estranged father in New York is as near perfect as it gets.
The story begins ‘The last time I saw my father…’ and ends ‘…and that was the last time I saw my father.’ The reader assumes he means the last time ever, but in fact, it could be part of an on-off relationship which will continue to be difficult. It is a story which repays close reading. The father smells of ‘a rich compound of whiskey, after-shave lotion, shoe polish, woolens, and the rankness of a mature male.’ He is a businessman, whose secretary has arranged the meeting, and he insults the waiters in three different bars in three different languages. However, when you ask yourself why he has already had a drink, and why he has dowsed himself with after-shave and had his shoes freshly cleaned, the image of a man who is desperately anxious about this meeting with a son he hasn’t seen for three years takes on a poignancy which could otherwise be missed.
(MODERN: from The Progress of Love, Flamingo).
Of the many fine stories by Munro, this is my personal favourite. As so often in her writing, the narrative spans many years of a woman’s life, from an incident in her childhood when a local boy was drowned, to a car journey with her husband and two small children along the border between Canada and the USA. We realise there is friction in the marriage, but the real story is the relationship between parents and children, and the duty which we owe, and the failure we cannot escape. The children in the story are beautifully drawn, real children with real childish observation of life. The ending is crucifyingly painful, especially if you’re a parent, in the unexpected and the completely unsurprising way of which Munro is such a master.
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