The Terrible Irony of Cheever’s ‘Reunion’
The title of this story - ‘Reunion’ – might lead the reader to expect a happy, celebratory story; after all, reunions involve meeting old friends or colleagues and reacquainting oneself with the past in a festive spirit of nostalgia. But Cheever’s story does not live up t these expectations. The opening sentence then brings the reader to a halt: “The last time I saw my father was in Grand Central Station.” (Cheever, 665). This seems to imply, when it is first read, that the narrator’s father died suddenly after their reunion at the station, but Cheever develops his story so well that this easy assumption is proved wrong and we are faced with a story that is less tragic, but no less sad.
The narrator’s has not seen his father for three years, since his parents have divorced, but recognizes his father as he comes through the crowded station to meet his son for lunch, the narrator’s feelings are full of pride. He writes that, “He was a big, good-looking man, and I was terribly happy to see him.” (665). At the start of the story his attitude to his father is unequivocal: “I hoped that someone would see us together. I wished that we could be photographed. I wanted some record of our having been together.” (665). At this point in the story, the narrator’s comments re-enforce the idea that this must be the last time he ever saw his father because of some terrible tragedy or his father’s sudden death. But as the story unfolds we realize that that is not the the reason. From a narrative point of view, from this moment – having mentioned the wish to be photographed together – the narrator virtually disappears from the story. By this I mean that he is still there, telling us what happened, but from that point on he does not reveal his emotions once and the reader is left to make his/her own interpretation of what happens.
And ‘what happens’ – the events of the story that follow – are very mundane and ordinary. The narrator and his father take a tour of local bars, eateries and restaurants, stopping at each venue to have a d rink, although they are sometimes turned away and at one point the narrator’s age is questioned: we are clearly meant to understand that he is below the legal drinking age. So what is the answer to the mystery of this story? Why is this the last time the narrator ever saw his father?
Father and son visit a variety of bars. The father’s motive seems to be that of impressing his son with his worldiness and to project an image of his being a man who can get what he wants. However, there is also a strong suggestion that his father has an alcohol problem, and his extrovert, rude and annoying behavior in the bars they visit might even suggest he has been drinking before he meets his son. His son calls his behavior “boisterous” which might well be a euphemism for “drunk,” and they fail to get a drink in the first bar they go to because the father antagonizes the waiter so much with his patronizing speech and the clapping of his hands to get the waiter’s attention, that they are asked to move on: the waiter refuses to serve them. At the second bar they do manage to get served one drink each, but the father’s rude and imperious behavior in ordering the second leads the waiter to question the narrator’s age and they leave again:
He then struck the edge of his empty glass with his knife and began shouting again. ‘Garçon! Kellner! Cameriere! You! Could we trouble you to bring us two more of the same.’ (666).
His attempt to impress his son with his cosmopolitanism backfires and the waiter finds his behaviour merely the patronizing, loud and rude behaviour of a drunk. Father and son leave. In the next establishment a similar situation develops. His father is still shouting and does an awfully pretentious impression of an Englishman, prompted by the English décor of the bar: “‘Master of the hounds! Tally ho and all that sort of thing. We’d like a little something in the way of a stirrup cup. Namely two Bison Geefeaters.’” (667). The father’s drunkenness is becoming more obvious in his spoonerism (Bibson Geefeaters instead of Gibson Beefeaters), and , like a lot of drunks he is more and more volatile: when he thinks the waiter is arguing with him, they leave again. The fourth place they try is Italian and, once again, in an attempt to impress his son with his knowledge as a man of the world he speaks to the waiter in Italain. This in itself is perhaps not a problem, but when the waiter says he cannot speak Italian, the father once again starts to argue and they are asked to leave by the chief waiter. Outside with the son not wanting to miss his train, his father buys him a newspaper and his remarks to the newspaper seller are worth quoting in full because tey show the father’s arrogance, condescension, pretentiousness and drunkenness in full flow:
Kind sir, will you be good enough to favor me with one of your God-damned, no-good, ten-cent afternoon papers?.... Is it asking too much, kind sir... is it asking too muck for you to sell me one of your disgusting specimins of yellow journalism? (668).
Unsurprisingly, the clerk ignores him, and his son goes to catch his tr
His father’s behavior is never openly criticized by the narrator, but the reader can see that is father is a drunk and a loud, brash, embarrassing man whom the narrator is, by the end of the story, simply ashamed to be with. The title of the story becomes ironic, because this is not a happy reunion, but an unhappy one and one that allows the son to see the faults of his father. Cheever’s narrative skill is such that he conveys all of this to us without once expressing the narrator’s feelings – which are kept hidden by the narrative style. Nonetheless, when we reach the final few words of the story: “... and that was the last time I saw my father,” (668), we realize that the narrator has chosen not to see his father because he does not like him. He does not like his rude, aggressive, drunken behaviour and, therefore, chooses not to see him again. Thus, despite the morbid hints about his father’s death, we end with a story, less tragic but no less sad.
Cheever, John. ‘Reunion.’ Pages 665 – 668. The Stories of John Cheever. 1978. London: Vintage. Print.