“Goodbye, My Brother” kicks off the celebrated collection titled The Stories of John Cheever. The 1978 publication was award the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the next year and the 1981 release took home that year’s top paperback honor from the National Book Awards. The status that Cheever himself awarded to “Goodbye, My Brother” is evident from the fact while the collection is primarily arranged chronologically, he specifically chose a story originally published four years after the story that follows it
The provenance of “Goodbye, My Brother” serves an illuminating example of how the creative process is far from linear. The path taken from genesis to publication can hardly be called a straight line. Cheever has said the story really got moving in his head when another story about a backgammon game that leads to tragedy simply didn’t hold up. A visit to Martha’s Vineyard, shadows of Cain and Abel, Nathanael Hawthorne’s mythologizing of the Yankee spirit of New Englanders and Cheever’s own complicated relationship with his real life brother all took connected to get the author to his final destination.
Along the way appeared a first draft featuring the Narrator while Lawrence was notably absent. By the time Lawrence came to life and Cheever finished the story, “Goodbye, My Brother” would wind up about twice as long as his typical short stories. The length would facilitate the fleshing out of the significance of the New England setting, the introduction of historical and mythological thematic overtones and, of course, the opportunity for Cheever to engage the act of writing as a redemptive instrument in the battle against the personal demons motivating him to tell the story.
All of which contributes mightily to the basic chronological construction of The Stories of John Cheever starting off conspicuously out of sync. The very process of its creation as well as its characteristic out of sync with the rest of Cheever’s canon and the high regard with which it was received by critics and academics all point to Cheever’s being award that “Goodbye, My Brother” stood out not just for the quality of its content, but as a supreme example of the very art of crafting a short story. Placing such an instructive example of the medium which is followed in the collection by more than fifty other stories was certainly not arbitrary decision by Cheever. Extricating this particular story from its chronological placement was a conscious decision and that decision seems clearly to have been informed by the author’s recognition that, as renowned critic Harold Bloom notes, “there is no other story that is more intrinsically representative of its author, or more personal.”