John Cheever's Cocktail of Compression Inspires Richard Ford

Literary influence is most interesting when it's least conscious.  When Richard Ford was asked to choose a story from The New Yorker's archive for their first New Yorker: Fiction podcast episode, he chose "Reunion," a John Cheever story from 1962. In the short preamble discussion with fiction editor Deborah Treisman, Ford cites the story's economy and says that the setting, Grand Central's concourse, where any two people might meet, provided the inspiration for his "Reunion" story in The New Yorker (c. 2000). Ford's story swaps the father & son meeting for an accidental encounter between a husband & former cuckolder of same. You can read Ford's story to yourself here, and preview Cheever's text here. I think the Cheever story unconsciously influenced a completely different Ford work (see below).

A Finger of the Good Stuff
I highly, highly recommend downloading Ford's reading of Cheever's "Reunion" in this 11-minute gem of a podcast from iTunes (if the listing expires, the audio may still be available at The New Yorker's archive). Of all the fiction podcasts I've listened to, this is one of the most re-listenable. Its brevity is bracing, not thirst-making, and you can sip it quickly anytime you need a literary pick-me-up. At just under 8 audio minutes (if you start at the 45-second mark and skip the post-game), this single-malt has been distilled of the annoying congeners that might give you a hangover. (Okay, I'll stop with the liquaphor now--besides, this summertime story features gin, not scotch.)

Dialogue Makes the Daddy
Cheever provides an affecting, minimalist set-up for the protagonist's state-of-mind (I won't spoil it, except to mourn the loss of rail service from Manhattan to Cape Cod), and then he lets the story rip through dialogue and movement. Not all writers are great readers, but Ford is one of the best, and he does justice to the father's arch dialogue and to the waiters' professional responses. He wisely underplays the son's few spoken lines. I actually think the story is better listened to than read on the page--the passage of the human voice through the first-person narration amplifies the emotion, and enhances the impression that Charlie is confiding in you.

300 Times
In the post-reading chat Ford mentions to Treisman that he's read Cheever's "Reunion" about 300 times (Minute 7:30), and that he sometimes reads it in public alongside his own Grand Central story, calling it a "direct inspiration." However, after I listened to this episode, I was reminded of a completely different Ford story, set in 1961 in a very un-Grand Central Louisiana locale, titled "Calling." I found it in my copy of A Multitude of Sins, Ford's 2001 collection of mostly adultery stories (including his "Reunion," which must have inspired the cover art), and I was struck by how similar the son-father dynamic in "Calling" is to that of the pair in Cheever's "Reunion," even down to the sons' both being hyper-aware of their father's smell, self-presentation, and the similar endings. Perhaps even more significant is the similarity in the fathers' speech rhythms and verbal grandiosities. (Unfortunately the full text of "Calling" is not available online unless you're a New Yorker subscriber.)

Grand Central vs. Bayou Duck Blind
What's not the same: Set about 1,300 miles apart, the stories' lengths are also dissimilar--Ford's "Calling" is long, over 30 book pages. It contains more psychological explication and philosophizing than Cheever's "Reunion," and also a lot more local color and description, plus some extra characters. Still, their hearts beat in the same place, and if you want to compare inspiration to influence, I would listen to Ford reading Cheever and then go to Ford's "Calling" story, not Ford's "Reunion."

Ford also selected Cheever's "Reunion" for his revamped The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, published in 2007. His introduction is available on the Guardian's site (contains spoilers, as well as lots of interesting observations on the short story form).