By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Reunion’ is a 1962 short story by the American writer John Cheever (1912-82). In the story, a young man meets up for a reunion with his father, but his father’s rude manner leads to their reunion being a failure.
‘Reunion’, like much of John Cheever’s short fiction, seems straightforward and can easily be comprehended, but there are some interesting ambiguities in the narrative which are worthy of closer analysis. First, though, here’s a brief summary of the story’s plot.
‘Reunion’: plot summary
The story is narrated by Charlie, a young man who is meeting up with his father for a reunion. The narrator is of indeterminate age but probably a teenager, based on the fact that he is suspected of being too young to drink alcohol.
The narrator wrote to his father, telling him that he would have an hour-and-a-half in New York while he was waiting for a connecting train, and so the two of them arranged to meet up for lunch together. Charlie’s mother had divorced his father three years earlier, and when he sees his father coming towards him at Grand Central Station, he hardly recognises him at first, although as he comes closer he sees in his father a glimpse of his future self.
They go to a series of restaurants, where the father attempts to order drinks – two cocktails, Beefeater Gibsons (gin martinis) – for him and his son. However, at the first restaurant, the rude way Charlie’s father claps his hands at the elderly waiter gets them thrown out. At the second restaurant, they manage to order two drinks and the father talks about baseball with (or at) his son, but when he tries to order another round of drinks, the waiter begins to suspect Charlie of being underage and they leave.
At the third, the father adopts quintessentially English mannerisms, and then proceeds to take umbrage at the way the waiter seeks to correct him about which country he is in, so Charlie’s father insists they leave and find somewhere else. And in the fourth restaurant, an Italian establishment, Charlie’s father tries to order drinks in Italian, only for the waiter to tell him that he cannot understand Italian. So they leave.
They return to the railway station, having been unsuccessful at ordering their lunch, and when the father tries to buy a magazine from the vendor at the newsstand, he does it in a rude manner which annoys the vendor. Charlie leaves his father there, and informs us that this was the last time he saw him.
Although it is easy enough to summarise the plot of ‘Reunion’, interpreting or analysing the significance of what happens is a more challenging task. Cheever’s narrative raises some difficult questions. How does Charlie actually feel about his father? Why does he seem reluctant to tell us this? Why does he not confront his father over his behaviour which gets them removed from a succession of restaurants when they have so little time for their reunion as it is?
When we look more closely at the remarks Charlie makes in his first-person narrative, further questions arise. Why, when he sees his father coming towards him in Grand Central Station, does Charlie describe him as ‘my future and my doom’? Is this just the sort of thing children say about their parents as they grow up and realise they will turn into them eventually when they get to their age? Or, given the troubling behaviour we will later witness, does it mean something more specific in Charlie’s case?
Note also how ‘Reunion’ begins and ends with Charlie telling us that the reunion in New York which is the subject of the story was ‘the last time’ he saw his father. Indeed, observe that Cheever deliberately uses the exact same seven words at the very beginning and the very end of the story: ‘the last time I saw my father’. But even this phrase is ambiguous: does he mean ‘the last time’ until the next time? Or does he mean the ‘last’ time as in the very last time, since he plans never to see him again and arrange another reunion?
Charlie’s mother had divorced his father three years earlier: itself a telling detail (had she finally had enough of his boorish behaviour, one wonders? Note how she divorced him; there is no mention of its being a mutually instigated decision). Now it will be up to Charlie to organise any further ‘reunion’ with his father.
The fact that he has only made a small window of time to see his father – and then, only because he has some time to kill between trains – suggests that the invitation to meet up was instigated more out of filial duty, perhaps even pity, than any genuine desire to spend time with his father. However, he tells us he was actually ‘terribly happy’ to see his father again. But is this merely what he is telling us, and himself? Is it the sort of thing we have to tell ourselves when being reunited with close family members to whom we owe so much?
Observe, in this connection, that Charlie is on his way between two other family visits: his grandmother’s home in the Adirondack Mountains and his mother’s rented cottage on the Cape (i.e., Cape Cod, in Massachusetts). This opening detail is itself suggestive that the female members of the family are more in tune with Charlie’s own personality than his father is, although there’s also a hint that if he morphs into his father, he will find himself cut off from them, as his father has been.
But what are the ‘limitations’ in which the future Charlie will have to plan his ‘campaigns’? Are they merely genetic – the apple never falling far from the tree, as the old parent-child proverb has it – or are they culturally conditioned, the result of the overbearing influence of his father on Charlie’s formation in those early years?
Again, we cannot answer these questions definitively, because ‘Reunion’ proceeds by hints and suggestions rather than firm details. But the fact that Charlie immediately smells whiskey on his father – it is the first thing he mentions among that rich cocktail of aromas – implies that alcoholism is a problem for his father (something borne out by his father’s boorish behaviour and his spoonerism involving the name of the ‘Bibson Geefeaters’ he tries to order) and that Charlie expects it will become a problem for him, too.
At the same time, however, we should also wonder at the motivation of Charlie’s father, whom we see only through his son’s (largely uncritical) eyes. He knows time is tight – this is why he suggests going to a local restaurant, when his first choice would have been a club he frequents – and this may be one reason why he sharply tries to get the attention of the old waiter (who, we should add, seems very eager to turn down the father’s custom).
This may also explain why he apologises to Charlie as they walk back to the station together, and expresses regret that there wasn’t time for them to go up to his club. There is a sense that he feels the pressure to act as a good host for his son, who is his guest in the city, and he feels (with some justification, we feel) let down by the poor standard of service in the restaurants they visit.
One explanation is that the father is already considerably drunk and the waiter senses that the man has had enough (but Charlie either does not notice this, or chooses not to draw attention to this fact), but even so, the abruptness of the waiter to accept the business of a wealthy customer willing to spend money (in what is, we should note, a restaurant not exactly heaving with patrons) strikes us as slightly odd and suspicious. And it’s worth observing, too, that the father tones down his boisterousness in the second restaurant, and they only leave when the waiter believes Charlie to be too young to be served alcohol.
In the last analysis, ‘Reunion’ is a quintessential John Cheever story in terms of its spare and straightforward style which masks ambiguous undercurrents – undercurrents worthy of analysis and discussion, even if (or perhaps, precisely because) the text itself does not provide definite answers for us.