Over a Cheever

I was at a tender and impressionable age when I discovered the short stories of Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever.

John Cheever’s grave in Norwell, Massachusetts. It’s adjacent to the parking lot for a place called Cheever Tavern.

They were life-changing.I was introduced to O’Connor by my mentor, Starkey Flythe.

Starkey was Georgian and Southern Gothic, so that was a natural development of his preaching to me.

I often refer to working with Starkey as my graduate school. He was a lovely man and the world is poorer without him.

Here is a short film of Starkey reading one of his poems. It’s a beautiful piece of work. Go to the link, then scroll down to “For My Absent Friend.” https://www.williammckeen.com/news/

I read O’Connor’s Complete Stories in one long inhale. With my friend, Harry Allen, we conversed as if we were characters in her story “Greenleaf.” She gave us a new language. She was a wonderful writer.

Oddly, her novels didn’t move me the way her short stories did.

Not sure how I came to John Cheever, but Starkey was probably the culprit.

Cheever wrote of a different world — the New York suburban life of highballs and infidelities. I again inhaled his collected stories (The Stories of John Cheever) in one gulp.

Decades later, I read the massive book straight through again. When I moved to Massachusetts, I was amused that I settled near Braintree and Quincy, Cheever’s old stomping grounds.

Flannery O’Connor

I have a friend who coaches the tennis team at Thayer Academy, the school that expelled Cheever.

I’ve been in a Cheever mood recently and discovered that I’m working one street over from Cheever’s apartment on Bay State Road.

He taught at Boston University for a while. Then, curious about his burial, I discovered he is in the First Parish Cemetery in Norwell. It’s right across the street from where son Charley works as a food runner. (The Tinker’s Son — frosty libations and swell vittles.)

So I played hooky from grading yesterday and found his grave. It’s a few feet away from the parking lot for a restaurant called Cheever Tavern.

There it was. This great writer’s grave is next to a parking lot. He’s buried next to his wife, Mary, and his son, Federico. Federico was a celebrated professor of law. He died while kayaking in 2017.

There is no great meaning or burning epiphany to report, but finding Cheever’s grave was deeply moving.

The Tavern wasn’t open, but I go by the place a couple of times a week, so I’ll drop in for a Scotch in honor of those two masterful storytellers.

John Cheever in the 1970s. He spent a couple of deeply unhappy terms teaching at Boston University before his career revived with Falconer and The Stories of John Cheever.

Cheever Tavern looks spiffy, and the menu might be too rich for my blood.

There is no entrance on the main street.

The tavern is behind a convenience store and a coffee shop, and you have to drive around back to find the joint.

I’ll let you know what it’s like, assuming the maitre’d doesn’t kick me out for being a lowlife.

Writing that Sings in the Shower

Back in 2011, a longtime friend that I’d never actually met — Beef Torrey, known at birth as Gregory Kent Torrey — came to visit.

Beef and I had corresponded for years and he helped me immensely with my Mile Marker Zero book. When I was going to interview Jim Harrison, a central character in the book, Beef advised me to show up with American Eagle cigarettes and a bottle of wine. Jim appreciated both gifts and talked my ear off.

Gregory Kent Torrey

Beef died suddenly a few years later and when it happened, all of his friends felt a disturbance in the force. He was a great man, a literary character, and a person who enjoyed life on earth.

When he came for that visit, he brought my boys gifts, including vintage issues of Mad magazine.  He spent a lot of time with them as we sat on our veranda overlooking the ocean. They adored “Mister Beef.”

Mile Marker Zero was dedicated to Beef and to Tom Corcoran and Dink Bruce. The paperback version, which came out after his death,  is dedicated to his memory.

He brought me a gift too — a  copy of his latest book, Conversations with Tom Robbins, which he compiled with Liam O. Purdon.

Beef and Liam interviewed Robbins for the final piece in the book and it contains this wonderful passage:

Tom Robbins

I’m for writing that is willing to wrap itself in the chiffon of dream and the goatskin of myth, but that shuns the mummy bandages of good ol’ earnest mainstream social realism because it can’t abide the smell of formaldehyde. I’m for writing that has the wisdom to admit that much of life is indisputably goofy and that has the guts to treat that goofiness as seriously as it treats suffering and despair.

I’m for writing that glugs out of the deep unconscious like ketchup from a bottle: writing that can get as drunk on ketchup as on cognac — and then sing all the way home in the cab with Cutie.

I’m for writing that sings in the shower. I’m for writing that shoplifts sleazy lingerie from Victoria’s Secret and searches the clear night sky for UFOs.

I’m for writing that quivers on your lap like a saucer of Jell-O and runs up your leg like a mouse. I’m for writing that knocks holes in library walls.

I’m for salty writing, itchy writing, steel-belted, copper-bottomed, nickel-plated writing, writing that attends the white lilacs after the heat is gone. I’m for writing that can swing like Tarzan — on a vine woven from the nose hairs of Buddha. I’m for writing that rescues the princess and the dragon.

I thought you might enjoy that.

Thank you, Mr. Torrey.