Department of Eagles’s Fred Nicolaus is obsessed with John Cheever. “I read John Cheever’s collected short stories when I was twenty, and I’ve been obsessed with them ever since,” he states. So obsessed that his brand new solo project, Golden Suits, takes its name from a Cheever reference, and this brand new video was an experiment inspired by Cheever’s story “The Swimmer.”
Much like the main character in Cheever’s famed story attempts to return to his house by swimming through all the pools in his neighborhood, Nicolaus traveled through Manhattan to purchase as many copies of The Stories of John Cheever as he could. The result is the video for “Swimming in ’99,” a song on Nicolaus’s debut solo release out today from Yep Roc. Filmed by Devin Hahn on July 27, the video follows Nicolaus as he visits twenty-seven bookstores and ends up with forty-six copies of Cheever’s stories. We’re excited to debut this rad video here on The Rumpus.
Bonus! Nicolaus talks all things Cheever and bookstore love with us. What’s better than the intersection of music and literature?
The Rumpus: You first read Cheever at 20. How did you come across his collected stories? What first hooked you, and what keeps you hooked?
Fred Nicolaus: I was on vacation with my family in a small beach town in California, and I bought his collection of short stories to read on the plane back to New York, I think because I remembered liking “The Swimmer” in high school. On the flight, I read the first story (“Goodbye, My Brother”) and I got to the final line: “I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.” I was completely overwhelmed by it. It was partially the language—how he was able to blend formal, sometimes stiff prose with almost surreal imagery and make it work.
Also, the world Cheever wrote about was compelling. I’m from California, so the whole “cocktail hour with the Farquarsons in a 100-year-old summer house on the Cape” thing was very exotic to me. Over time, I kept coming back to it for different reasons—the way he would write about marriage, his tortured sense of morality. I feel like that book is an endlessly renewable resource for me.
Rumpus: For this video, you set out to buy every available copy of Cheever’s collected stories in Manhattan that you could find and ended up with 46 copies from 27 bookstores. Tell me about the edition you loved best. How much did it cost? How much did the cheapest edition cost?
Nicolaus: The signed edition, which I bought at Left Bank Books on Hudson Street, is really nice to have. It’s signed “To Regina.” It cost a little over $100 and was by far the most expensive copy I bought. The cheapest was probably at The Strand, for $6 or so. If I had tried to go to thrift stores, I probably would have been able to get one for fifty cents.
Rumpus: How did the people at the bookstores react when you asked them for all of their copies? I have to admit, I’ve worked at bookstores and at one used bookstore, we must’ve had an entire paper bag full of mass market collected Cheever. Do you think maybe some of the stores you went to didn’t tell you about all those copies in the back?
Nicolaus: Funny you should say that. One of the stores, Bookbook on Bleecker, had two or three sale copies out. When I explained what I was doing, the clerk went down into the basement and got a big stack of books. People reacted in a lot of different ways. Many had a quite justifiable “WTF” reaction and some were really into it and some were totally blasé. In New York, seeing a guy lugging around a giant sack of John Cheever books isn’t the weirdest thing they’ll see that day. At Posman Books in Chelsea Market, the clerk rang me up and said, “There are some good stories in this.” I held up my giant bag and he looked shocked and then just started laughing.
Rumpus: You must have come across some fascinating people during this adventure. Can you describe some of these people and your interactions with them?
Nicolaus: Bookstore people are the best. At Left Bank in the West Village, one of the owners is a very cool beatnik style guy who wanted to riff a lot. I had a fun and kind of bewildering conversation with him about Cheever and credit card machines. The guy working at Mast Books, because it’s on the Lower East Side, was worried I was going to barge into the store and film some kind of intense performance art. When he saw I just wanted to buy a book, he came out onto the street after me and started shouting into the camera: “CHEEVER! CHEEVER YOU FUCKERS, TELL THE WORLD!”
Rumpus: You and I share a love of bookstores. Which are your favorite New York City bookstores and why? Disclosure: I worked at The Strand when I lived in New York City. Was there any specific reason that you focused on Manhattan bookstores? There is a thriving Brooklyn bookstore scene these days.
Nicolaus: I do love bookstores; they’re some of my favorite places to be. Weirdly, one of the sad things about this whole project was that it was even possible. I was on Yelp trying to figure out how many bookstores are in New York, and so many of them have closed recently. Twenty years ago, I doubt I would have even been able to attempt this. I chose Manhattan because it seemed like a nice unit, and doable, and relevant to Cheever’s world. But Brooklyn bookstores are great, too. In Manhattan, it’s hard to choose a favorite. I went to NYU, so I chose The Strand and St. Marks for maybe sentimental reasons? Before this project, I had never been to The Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side, which is a new favorite—it’s so nice in there. It feels like a jewel box. I also really love the secret bookstore on the Upper East Side.
Rumpus: What are you reading now? Did you happen upon any must-haves as you made this video and acquired the Cheever copies?
Nicolaus: It’s funny but I’m actually re-reading the Cheever book right now. At the end of the video, you see me dumping fifty pounds of Cheever onto the floor of my room. I remember thinking, “Okay, I’m done with this book now,” but apparently I’m not. I’m going back to front this time.
Rumpus: What are you doing with all the copies of Cheever’s collected stories?
Nicolaus: Right now they’re sitting in a stack on the floor of my bedroom. I keep tripping on them in the morning. I want to give them away. I’m trying to think of the best way to do that.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the intersection of music and literature. I know that’s a really broad topic, but can you tell me specifically what intrigues you about it?
Nicolaus: I think the part that gets me most excited is being inspired for a song by something that’s outside of music. I think Kanye West recently said Yeezus was inspired by a Le Corbusier lamp. I mean, yes, that’s kind of insane, but I feel like I know what he’s getting at. If you start with “I want this to sound like The Smiths,” I know where that goes. But if you start with “I want this to sound like a Cheever story,” you can end up in fun place.