Ten years ago when I packed in my job in London and moved back to my mother's place, my first project was to read John Cheever's stories from start to finish. Nobody does what Cheever does - he is romantic, spiritual and funny all at once. He loved the Bible and the atmosphere of a provincial church on a Sunday morning, but he also loved sex, gin and cigarettes. The stories follow the order they were published, beginning with his early New York tales of little people "making it" - or more often not making it. The scene gradually shifts to the suburbs, in which businessmen flounder in debt and lust, although they are often saved by something as simple as a vision of light through the trees. In "The Pot of Gold", an early story, a husband waits years for the moment when he will get rich, realising after many disappointments that his riches - his pot of gold - is his marriage. From another writer such a plot might just be sentimental, but Cheever is very good at describing the degradation of poverty in a society as money-oriented as America's. Most of these stories were written for the New Yorker, and like his hero Scott Fitzgerald, Cheever quickly developed a magazine style that could handle the big themes but is never ponderous.
The stories mainly deal with ordinary men who live ordinary lives, but the solutions to their problems are often extraordinary and miraculous. My own favourite is "The Country Husband", in which Francis Weed survives a plane crash and falls in love with his babysitter on the same day. Anyone who is looking for Updike without the politics, Hemingway without the macho stuff and Fitzgerald without the glamour will love these stories. Since I first read them ten years ago in my mother's house, I have reread them countless times and they have never lost their power.