Few prose writers can touch Cheever for the painterly precision of his descriptions, and the reward of them too — his characters, locked in the struggles of suburban and familial angst, regularly experience moments of transcendence and rebirth in nature.
I’d been thinking about Cheever lately, ever since pulling down Bullet Park from my bookshelf a couple weeks ago and being reminded of its great opening paragraph:
Paint me a small railroad station then, ten minutes before dark. Beyond the platform are the waters of the Wekonsett River, reflecting a somber afterglow. The architecture of the station is oddly informal, gloomy but unserious, and mostly resembles a pergola, cottage or summer house although this is a climate of harsh winters. The lamps along the platform burn with a nearly palpable plaintiveness. The setting seems in some way to be at the heart of the matter. We travel by plane, oftener than not, and yet the spirit of our country seems to have remained a country of railroads. You wake in a pullman bedroom at three a.m. in a city the name of which you do not know and may never discover. A man stands on the platform with a child on his shoulders. They are waving goodbye to some traveler, but what is the child doing up so late and why is the man crying? On a siding beyond the platform there is a lighted dining car where a waiter sits alone at a table, adding up his accounts. Beyond this is a water tower and beyond this a well-lighted and empty street. Then you think happily that this is your country — unique, mysterious and vast. One has no such feelings in airplanes, airports and the trains of other nations.
(Read more from Chapter 1 of Bullet Park here.)
I love using what Amazon calls “statistically improbable phrases” like “Paint me a small railroad station” when I’m trying to find a particular text on the web. Try it yourself. The first hit you getÂ is an interview on Powells.com with novelist A. M. Homes.
What is your favorite literary first line?
“Paint me a small railroad station then, ten minutes before dark,” from John Cheever’s Bullet Park. For years I’ve wondered about the placement of the word “then.” What does it mean? Why is it there?
That’s a great point. What does “then” mean, or rather do, in that sentence? In fact, what does “paint me” mean? I guess it means “imagine,” sort of. And “then”? For me, it carries just the faintest hint of a continuing conversation, and smooths out the otherwise abrupt transition the reader undertakes in the opening sentence or paragraph of any story: from knowing nothing about the world of the story to accepting that world not only as extending forward through time as we follow the events of the narrative, but extending also backwards in time, before the events of the story occur, and before we came along. (See further and better musings on time in the novel here.)
Anyhow: Cheever’s style. A gift to you and me, albeit indirectly, from some of the laziest bastards on earth.