In the short story “Reunion” by John Cheever, a boy named Charlie meets his father for the last time. The story, set in New York, starts at the information booth of wherever the father works, or perhaps owns, where Charlie and his father have planned to meet. He is extremely excited when he sees his father again, who he hasn’t seen since his mother divorced him three years prior. He sees himself in him, and thinks about how he wanted to be just like him.
The father takes Charlie to four different bars. At each bar, the father is awfully rude to their waiters, calling them names, and just being extremely condescending. He’d call them over in four different languages, always ordering a Gibson Beefeater in the most obnoxious way possible. Most of the story is the father making fun of the waiters and then storming out with his son when they weren’t served.
After the last bar, Charlie says he needs to catch his train. The father says he was “terribly sorry,” and offers to get him a paper for his trip. At the booth, he does the same thing, just being terribly condescending to the newspaper salesman, and asks Charlie to wait so he can watch him “get a rise” out of the guy. Charlie says goodbye and does not wait for a response.
The acute tension is Charlie and his father meeting and the chronic tension is the distance between the two, and also perhaps the father’s evasion from connecting with his son.
What makes the story compelling?
One thing that made this story interesting to me was the sheer rudeness of the father. When they went to the first restaurant, I was not expecting the father to be so disgusting to the employees. Because of Charlie’s idolization of his father in the beginning, I got the sense that he would be a good, hardy, self-respecting, honest man, but both Charlie and I were so wrong. After the scene he made at the first restaurant, even though he did not show any guilt, I still was not expecting to be as rude as he was again. But I stand corrected. As the story goes on, I got the sense that the father just really does not want to talk to his son, and would rather distract himself with fussing with the waiters. Because, how could a successful man (a man who goes to the Club and has a secretary answer all of his calls) have made it this far in life by being the biggest prick alive? Surely he could not be so successful if he wasn’t even able to get a drink at a bar. In the end, he doesn’t even say goodbye to his son, instead getting distracted himself with the newspaper salesman.
Another thing that I found really interesting about this story was its disbalance of description. Normally, if the beginning is packed with description and imagery and inner dialogue, and the end is not, it can give the impression that the ending was not given the same amount of attention as the beginning, or it can feel rushed and not as important. However, for me, the lack of description following the beginning served the story very well. It helped to highlight how the father dominated their afternoon together, and how Charlie just didn’t matter to his father. It also shows how empty Charlie probably feels after having such high hopes for his father be crushed. After the first restaurant, you can tell that Charlie is just waiting for their time to be over.
Also, one more thing: the first sentence. It’s great. It immediately poses a dramatic situation: a father and son’s relationship dies, and we are about to hear the story of how that came to be.
What can we steal for our writing?
So a concrete technique that I think can be applicable for a lot of stories is how John Cheever frames the story. I just mentioned how good the first sentence is, but I didn’t point out how the last sentence and the first sentence are almost identical. I think this could be useful to employ if an ending feels incomplete, or if the story doesn’t feel tied together. For me, it just made the story feel whole. All you have to do is say what happens in the first sentence–you’re not really spoiling it, because you’ll have to explain how you got to that conclusion, and the reader will probably forget what you said in the first sentence anyways.
Another thing that I just really appreciate about this story is how Cheever really lets the story do the work. What I mean by that is, Charlie doesn’t explain to us that his father is a huge snob, that he regrets meeting him again, and he is forced to accept the fact that he has a terrible dad. We get all of this ourselves through some pretty easy-to-understand dialogue, in just over two pages. While this may not be something that you can just steal, I think it’s good to recognize how briefly Cheever told this story, yet it’s packed with underlying themes of alcoholism, fatherhood, family and grief.
One last thing: repetition. Having a character do or say the same things over and over again is a great way to engrave a character in the reader’s mind.
- Do you think the father is an ass to avoid talking to his son, or because he’s just an ass?
- How did you feel about the silent inner dialogue of Charlie following the beginning?
- Do enough things happen in this story? Does it seem too short?