This poem actually started out as the first part of a sequence I was working on as an assignment for a seminar in graduate school. The prompt was to write about an imagined home in various stages of occupancy. I chose first to write about the importance of the garden because my vision was of a home belonging to a young couple in love. I wanted the piece to be a sort of domestic love poem, but one that speaks to love through the couples’ desire to use things up to the very last drop; the sensuality that can emerge from everyday life and our engagement with our surroundings.
Since I was living in Eugene, Oregon at the time, I drew a lot upon the landscape of the West Coast. The importance of naming things and giving each plant and flower a purpose and identity was crucial to my process. What I really hoped to capture in the lines was the pleasure and brightness of the natural world and its ability to give us each a history.
I have since abandoned the other parts of the sequence; this poem stood so well on its own. However, maybe I’ll revisit the house I imagined once (whose street name, Birdsall Drive, I borrowed from that of a dear friend growing up) and see who and what I might find there now.
Of the more than two hundred short stories I have published over the past decade, none has proven nearly as popular with readers as “The Vermin Episode,” a sequel to Kafka’s Metamorphosis that initially appeared in the journal, Image, and later in my collection, Scouting for the Reaper. In my story, Gregor Samsa’s neighbor, an orthodox rabbi, is charged with the duty of arranging a proper Jewish burial for the enormous vermin corpse that Gregor has become. The success of that piece inspired me to put together a series of stories that reexamine other classic short stories, including a retelling of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” from the point of view of the title character’s African-American servant and an alternative version of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in which the “winners” are sold to pedophiles. “In the Cheever Asylum,” which draws upon material from two of John Cheever’s best-known masterpieces, “The Enormous Radio” and “The Swimmer,” is the latest of these efforts.
The challenge of creating short stories that engage earlier works is both creative and legal. On the first count, one wants to be certain that one is truly saying something original, not merely churning out the literary equivalent of fan fiction. In addition, readers unfamiliar with the original texts should be able to enjoy my story on its own merits, while those who know the Cheever works should appreciate the relationship between his imaginary world and mine. Closely related is the requirement that any engagement with a copyrighted work prove “transformative” in order to garner a “fair use” exemption from infringement rules. As one of Westchester’s most obscure authors, I have no interest in a courtroom fight with the heirs to the county’s literary legends, so I am very conscious of the need to push my writing into new literary territory.
Both of Cheever’s stories grapple with issues of mental health and magical thinking. Neddy Merrill in “The Swimmer” follows a downward path through alcoholism and depression toward outright delusion; “The Enormous Radio’s” Irene Westcott deteriorates from anxiety toward psychosis. As a practicing psychiatrist, I could not resist placing these characters under my own clinical care in a fictional asylum—hoping to use their travails to comment on Cheever’s world and human psychopathology more generally. Nothing would please me more than a call from one of Cheever’s adult children—two of whom are celebrated writers in their own right—to thank me for so honoring their father and his brilliant work. But since his offspring may be phoning to warn me of impending litigation, I am going to let their calls go to voice mail—just to be safe.
“Books & Beer” airs the second and fourth Wednesday of the month from 10-11 a.m., on WVOX: 1460 AM, wvox.com, and then is available via podcast (http://booksandbeer.podomatic.com/). The show features New York authors talking about their books and the craft of writing, and sampling local craft beers. Guests have included Eddie Joyce (“Small Mercies”), George Vecsey (“Seven World Cups”) and Jacob M. Appel (“The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up”, 2015 issue of The Westchester Review).
Host Michael Malone is a Mount Pleasant-based journalist and novelist (“No Never No More”, “When I Was Punk”). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and the 2013 issue of The Westchester Review. When approached last year by the owner of WVOX about launching a show, he thought of his two favorite things to indulge in and talk about, and “Books & Beer” was born.