"Mad Men's" great influence: A show's secrets, hidden in plain sight

Stop looking for Sharon Tate allusions. Matthew Weiner's true muse might be John Cheever's suburban short stories

Published May 25, 2014 8:30PM (EDT)

Jon Hamm in "Mad Men"               (AMC/Michael Yarish/amc)
Jon Hamm in "Mad Men" (AMC/Michael Yarish/amc)

If you are, like me, going through the pangs of "Mad Men" withdrawal (half a season? a whole year?), I have your methadone for you. "The Stories of John Cheever" won’t just get you through the next 10 months – they’ll make you forget that Don Draper ever took his shirt off, that Roger Sterling ever indulged his id, that anyone ever punched Pete Campbell in the face.

A year ago, John Cheever was one of my biggest literary gaps. As a short story writer, I was almost proud of this – in the way an English major friend was proud of graduating college without having read "Hamlet." I understood Cheever to be iconic, understood even that I’d learn a lot from reading him, but I had no inkling that I’d adore him as earnestly as I adored a show like "Mad Men," something I’d absorb not for its cultural import but for its brilliance and fun. And then, last summer, I picked up the fat red volume that had been in my “to read” stack for nearly a decade. I was awed to encounter not just a literary masterpiece, but the direct ancestor of some of my favorite current storytelling: If "Mad Men" was the river, these were the headwaters. If "Mad Men" was chocolate milk, this was a bar of 90 percent Lindt. If "Mad Men" was Honey Smacks, this was a swarm of bees.

Cheever was one of those writers I’d formed an opinion of without ever reading. I imagined all his stories to involve a businessman who got off the evening train drunk, stood in his yard peering in through the windows of his own house, and had some sort of sad revelation. And perhaps, in subject matter, I wasn’t far off. But that’s like saying all of Jane Austen is about women dating in mansions. True, but not fair.

Here’s what I found: In each story, a small world of alienation and humor and despair, a meditation on family or work, the city or the suburbs, travel or stasis, success or failure. Stories that resist neat epiphany. Stories that capture the pivot points of the 20th century. This last one matters very much; 14 years into the new century, we’re still processing the seismic cultural shifts of the last one. We live in the world the '60s made, and made possible. And, whether we know it or not, we’re still seeing the mid-1900s through the lens Cheever created. We need his work for the same reason we need "Mad Men"; we may be at a historical and stylistic remove, but not nearly as much as we’d like to think.

That Cheever is an influence on "Mad Men" is no secret. In his New York Times Book Review “By the Book” interview on April 27, series creator Matthew Weiner said, “The fiction of John Cheever has a voice filled with irony and comedy and pain that, on some level, I’m always seeking to emulate. His short stories present themselves as episodes of TV do – with plenty of story and flawed characters presented without judgment.” Weiner – and his well-read viewers – have been saying as much for years. And it’s not just a tonal influence: Don Draper starts the series living in Ossining, N.Y., the town Cheever himself wrote from until his 1982 death. I dare you to read Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” and not think of the Season 5 episode “Signal 30,” in which Pete Campbell projects all his suburban insecurities onto his giant stereo (and Ken Cosgrove writes a short story about it). Cheever’s “The Death of Justina” should put you instantly in mind of the demise of secretary Ida Blankenship in Season 4. At the end of that story, Cheever’s protagonist, an adman, commits a final act of defiance against his firm by turning in the 23rd Psalm as ad copy. I’m waiting for Draper to do the same.

Cheever’s later stories, like “The Fourth Alarm” and “Artemis the Honest Will Digger” (both published in 1973), show us men intrigued by, but stiffly out of place in, a sexually liberated world. The Don Draper who accedes to Megan’s threesome but then leaves the house with his marriage further scarred is kin to the narrator of “The Fourth Alarm,” nightmarishly coerced into joining in his wife’s nude theater production. That man gets dressed again, and, “jingling the car keys,” walks to the train. His suit, like Don’s, is no longer a symbol of power but a stiff reminder of an earlier age, a symbol of its wearer’s obsolescence.

Granted, perhaps some of the displacement Cheever depicted was that of the wealthy white man in an America no longer custom-made for wealthy white men – a shock for which we no longer hold much sympathy. You could, for instance, read his iconic “The Swimmer” this way, as the story of a man the world has passed by. "Mad Men," as a product of the 21st century, its writing room filled with women, has the advantage of speaking for multiple racial and gender and sexual viewpoints, even when some of those plotlines (poor Season 5 Dawn) feel a bit tacked on, a bit too on-the-nose. But Cheever was a closeted bisexual – and, at the risk of presuming biographical influence, I imagine the isolation and secrecy that pervade many of his stories (look at “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” about a suburban man breaking in to rob his neighbors as they sleep) grew more from an acute sense of alienation than from simple “Hey, what happened to my fiefdom?” disgruntlement. And stories like “The Season of Divorce” show a deep understanding of women even as Cheever’s narrators remain almost universally male.

Cheever’s stories often end not with action but in a tangential and meditative fugue; Weiner’s episodes end with music, arguably the filmic equivalent. The perfect discord of Betty eating ice cream to the strains of “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” ended a dark Season 5 episode better than any cliffhanger, any plot development, could have. As with a Cheever story, we haven’t wrapped things up neatly – to do so would be an insult to the complexity of what has come before – but we’re given a tonal riff on the story, plus time to absorb it all. We’ve already seen the splash of the rock in the pond, and now we’re watching the ripples. At the end of Cheever’s “A Country Husband,” the protagonist stands in his garden after a series of social and marital humiliations, and watches a neighbor dog prance “through the tomato vines, holding in his generous mouth the remains of an evening slipper.” A lesser writer might have stopped there, but Cheever takes off for outer space: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” If, next spring, "Mad Men" ends on a note half that strange and sublime, I’ll be satisfied.

There are 61 pieces in "The Stories of John Cheever," the compendium that won him both the Pulitzer and the American Book Award in 1979; that’s more than one story a week until "Mad Men" returns. Consider them 61 bonus episodes, 61 shots of disquieting perfection, 61 tales of the last century’s cataclysmic self-adjustments.

In my favorite "Mad Men" moment, Bert Cooper eulogizes poor Ida Blankenship, who died at her desk: “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She's an astronaut. If the 20th century was the era of such involuntary astronauts, then Cheever was their bard. Weiner is both his echo and his evolution.

By Rebecca Makkai

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