Concrete Action: Cheever’s Alcoholic Catalyst

Techniques tracked:
-Rising action reflected through concrete detail, gesture and setting
-Plotting escalations without explosions, murders, or missing eyeballs


What is John Cheever’s “Reunion” “about”? It’s about why “the last time” the narrator saw his father will be the last time he sees his father—permanently.

Discussion Q #1: How does the action rise over the course of the story—what pattern is established? How does Cheever break this pattern by the end of the story?

Discussion Q #2: What’s the most vivid image that you remember after reading the story?

As Janet Burroway puts it, “story form follows its most natural order of ‘complications’ when each battle is bigger than the last.” The rising action in “Reunion” is much more subtle and concise than your average war story, but its incremental escalations are just as regular. The young narrator is eager to meet his father, whom he hasn’t seen in years, for lunch. At the first restaurant they go to, we’re immediately offered a concrete image:

The bartender was quarreling with a delivery boy, and there was one very old waiter in a red coat down by the kitchen door.

It is an image of both strife and isolation, foreshadowing what’s to come. The father claps at the waiter, who then suggests they go somewhere else, which they do. At the second restaurant, there’s no image or description of the setting; we instead launch straight into the father’s (escalated/rising) action: he shouts for the waiter, and this time, in an escalation of the action, they get into a dispute over whether the narrator is old enough to drink (interestingly, their dispute is over something playing a big role in the rising action in other ways—alcohol). In the first restaurant the father’s rude; in the second, his morals and parental abilities are implicitly called into question. They go to a third restaurant.

Here the waiters wore pink jackets like hunting coats, and there was a lot of horse tack on the walls.

Here the father slurs his speech and the waiter mocks him outright instead of merely suggesting he leave, as the first waiter did. The father’s response is to further reveal his snobbery:

“If there is one thing I cannot tolerate,” my father said, “it is an impudent domestic. Come on, Charlie.”

The entitlement revealed earlier by the father’s clapping in the first restaurant is now revealed to run even deeper to problematically classist beliefs, which are made even more problematic by the fact that he has no problem letting them dictate his actions.

Finally, we’re on to our fourth and final stop:

The fourth place we went to was Italian. “Buon giorno,” my father said. “Per favore, possiamo avere due cocktail americani, forti, forti. Molto gin, poco vermut.”

“I don’t understand Italian,” the waiter said.

“Oh, come off it,” my father said. “You understand Italian, and you know damned well you do. Vogliamo due cocktail americani. Subito.”

We get a single descriptor (Italian) for our last restaurant before launching into the father’s action. Whereas he’s shouted at the wait staff before, the difference this time is he’s doing it in Italian. This exchange has its own microcosm of rising action: the father shouts in Italian, an action to which the waiter responds by saying he does not speak Italian, an action to which the father responds by saying of course he does: the exchange escalates to the point that the father reveals his inherently racist beliefs (i.e., if you work in an Italian restaurant you must be Italian). Each restaurant, presumably with its accompanying drink(s), reveals another, even bigger reason the narrator probably should not see his father again. The father has gone from merely rude to morally repugnant to classist to racist in the course of a single story/afternoon.

To sum up: The conflict is that he’s going to see his father. The crisis is his learning that his father is a jerk. The resolution is constituted by the reversal that while he seems excited by the prospect of his inherent similarities to his father at the beginning when he’s anticipating their meeting, by the end the prospect of this similarity seems mildly horrifying. We assume that he will not see his father again, that when the narrator says “the last time” in the last line, he means it in a more final sense than he did in the first line—our expanded understanding of this phrase by the end is another reversal.

Discussion Question #3: Why do we get hardly any information about the narrator’s character?


One thought on “Concrete Action: Cheever’s Alcoholic Catalyst

  1. Pingback: The Tales of Two Adams pt 2: Haslett’s “Notes to My Biographer” | the pva creative writing review

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