On a sun-drenched autumn afternoon Alan Cheuse pilots his burgundy Toyota from Washington, D.C.'s Union Station to his apartment in Cleveland Park. As we cruise down Embassy Row -- a route he has taken a thousand times from George Mason University in Virginia (where he teaches in the writing program) -- he identifies all the countries: "There's Brazil," he says, steering with one hand and pointing, "and that's the British compound. There's South Africa. The Vatican. The vice-president's house."

At an intersection, a woman pulls up in a brown Celica. She's blonde, middle aged and chic in tortoise-shell sunglasses. "Hey, Alan," she says when Cheuse greets her. "My former massage therapist," he confides as she drives away. It's a perfect Alan Cheuse moment: small-town friendly, but raffish. We'll repeat it at Starbucks, picking up cappuccinos, when we run into one of Cheuse's neighbors.

"That was Al Checchi's sister," he says on the way back to the car (Checchi is a California politician defeated in the spring Democratic primary). Cheuse's manner is unprepossessing -- aside from the mane of wavy gray hair and neat salt-and-pepper beard, the 58-year-old novelist favors the '90s uniform of the unreconstructed counterculturalist: blue jeans, black Levi's shirt, black denim jacket and green Nike hiking sh s -- but his sense of being a grand raconteur at the center of a social whirl belies his exceptional mellowness.At home, he sheds his sh s and reclines comfortably on his porch with the sounds of home-improvement echoing through the crisp fall air, then lowers his voice a notch. His eyes, piercing behind wire-rimmed glasses, invite empathy, but it's the rustle of his diction, familiar to the millions who listen to his weekly book reviews on National Public Radio, that reels you in. It hangs just beneath the threshold of casual listening, forcing you to pay attention. The conversation meanders from his maverick years in the academy to his new short story collection, Lost and Old Rivers, out in December from SMU Press (Forecasts, Oct. 26) and his late start as a fiction writer.

A true journeyman whose first job was as a toll-taker on the New Jersey Turnpike, Cheuse moved through a series of positions, at Bennington College, the University of the South and the University of Michigan before finally landing at George Mason in 1987. These were years in which he struggled to develop his novelistic voice. "I started writing fiction very late," he says. "I didn't know how to do it. So I wrote secretly. I certainly wasn't going to show anything to John Gardner or Bernard Malamud," he continues, mentioning a pair of Bennington colleagues. "When I first met Malamud, he said, 'I think we can be friends if you never show me any fiction you write.'" Cheuse has since edited, with Bennington crony Nicholas Delbanco, a collection of Malamud's essays, Talking Horse, published by Columbia University Press in 1996.Cheuse clearly values his teaching experience at Bennington above any other. "I didn't get along with the critics," he says, "because I was always hanging out with the writers." He and Delbanco were instrumental in convincing Bennington's then historically young president, Gail Thane Parker, to bring Gardner onto the faculty. Cheuse has plenty of Gardner stories, several of which feature the writer's flamboyant appearances and his legendary ability to guzzle awesome quantities of liquor.

"It was a little Golden Age," Cheuse says of the madcap Bennington years, which came to an end in 1978 when he was denied tenure. Lost and Old Rivers seeks to capture some of the wandering ethos of the following decade. Populated by divorced men, melancholy single women and -- in the remarkable "Hernando Alonso" -- a Jew who accompanied Cortés on his conquest of Mexico, the stories are unified by their characters' precarious humanity, by small interior hopes sustained against the relentless press of loneliness.

Divorce is a subtheme, one with which Cheuse is well acquainted. "It was terrifying," he says of his split from his first wife, Meme Agan, a writer. "But I suppose it's given me some subject matter, if not a subject." He seems philosophical about his failed marriages (he divorced his second wife, Faulkner scholar Marjorie Pryse, in 1984) but also very happy in his current one, to Kristin O'Shee, a dancer/choreographer with a holistic healing practice. "I've been a cockeyed existentialist since college," he quips. "One of the vexing things about the writing life is discovering that there is no true relation between how writers live and how they write. Bastards make great art and saints can be dull on the page."

From Russia by Way of N.J.
The temperature drops and we move inside, where Cheuse offers a whirlwind tour of his small apartment. The computer on his desk has only recently supplanted his old typewriter, which sits in its case on the floor. "I was afraid that it would be like writing on a television screen," he says. There's also a framed black-and-white photo of his dashing Russian-aviator father, Philip Kaplan, a man who escaped Stalin in the '30s by crashing his airplane in the Sea of Japan. After eluding Soviet agents in China, he made his way to America, where he met Cheuse's mother, Tillie, who at 82 continues to live in the Garden State (his father died in 1982).

Cheuse was born and raised in Perth Amboy, N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Before taking a Ph.D. at Rutgers in 1974, he embarked on a low-rent jaunt through Europe, including a Hemingwayesque episode in Franco's Spain (aspects of which wind up in the new collection's "On the Millstone River"), followed by a stint as the assistant fur-page editor for Women's Wear Daily; a year on the low literary rung at Kirkus Reviews, churning out a book review per day at $7 a pop; and a teaching gig in Mexico. In 1978, while in Knoxville, Tenn., he made a pact with his second wife to break through as a fiction writer before he hit 40. A story in The New Yorker did the trick with a year to go. DeWitt Henry of Ploughshares introduced Cheuse to Phil Zuckerman, who had just started Applewood Books. Zuckerman published Candace and Other Stories in 1980, and Cheuse dived into his first novel.

"I had always been attracted to John Reed," he recalls, speaking of the radical American journalist, an important figure in his novel, who became a hero of the Russian revolution and was buried under the Kremlin wall. "Granville Hicks told me that a young historian was writing a biography of Reed. Maybe this was where my life went terribly wrong, because a cartoon lightbulb went off in my head and a little voice whispered, 'Write the book as a novel.'"Published in 1982 by Applewood, The Bohemians nicely coincided with Warren Beatty's Oscar-winning film, Reds, selling 12,000 copies on an advance that Cheuse remembers as something like $6000; his price has since climbed, but Cheuse is sphinxlike about finances: "If success is a hand with 10 fingers," he jokes, "then I've got a ring finger." Meeting the notoriously charming Hollywood icon was one of the perks of writing about Reed. "Beatty allowed us to do a band across the book jacket that said something like, 'Same lovable characters as in Reds,' and invited my son and me to watch an early cut. He fed us, but didn't eat anything himself. Trying to maintain his girlish figure. All he really wanted to do was talk about Reed."

Cheuse's well-received second novel, The Grandmothers' Club -- praised by the New York Times Book Review for its "magical displacement of time and a language that rattles us" -- came not from Applewood, but from the Salt Lake City, Utah, house run by Gibbs Smith, in 1986. Two more works of fiction appeared under Smith's imprint, The Tennessee Waltz and Other Stories and Cheuse's fictionalization of the life of Georgia O'Keeffe, The Light Possessed. "Smith tracked me down," Cheuse says, "finally catching up with me at a dinner with Anne Beattie. I remember when I took the call she looked across the table at me and said, 'He must be desperate, or you must be really good.'"

In 1987, Cheuse turned to nonfiction, taking on the prickly memory of his deceased father ("We fought all my life," says Cheuse) in Fall Out of Heaven: An Autobiographical Journey. In addition to the Malamud collection, he has edited two nonfiction titles with Caroline Marshall, both from Anchor: The Sound of Writing and Listening to Ourselves. Of his relationships with his various editors, he has nothing but positive sentiments, especially for his latest, SMU's Kathryn Lang (SMU now holds the lion's share of Cheuse's backlist). Dealings with agents have been relatively less smooth -- he says that one, whom he declines to name, plunged him into a "black hole" -- though he seems delighted with the labors of his current representative, and neighbor, Timothy Seldes, who has Cheuse's newest novel, Earth as It Is, on the block, with another, Biography of an Unknown Woman, waiting in the wings. Cheuse has never brought out a novel with a New York house, but not for lack of effort. "Publishing with small presses has its pros and cons," he says. "But you get incredible attention, the kind that the big houses lavish on only a few authors."

Twenty years of almost constant writing, of course, can't overshadow Cheuse's fame as one of the most popular reviewers in America. Ever since 1982, when a freelance article on NPR led to an audition, he has been the sound of books on NPR's nightly news broadcast, All Things Considered, a program that reaches one of the largest book-buying audiences in America. "It's the thing I truly love to do," says Cheuse, adding, "I'm a radio kid. I used to listen to The Shadow on Saturdays when I was growing up. The way they present culture at NPR is the way it should always be handled in the modern age."

Cheuse responds humbly to the notion that he's a radio natural. Such an admission would distract from what he continues to perceive as his true calling, that of a writer quietly laboring over his sentences. "Some guys are lucky enough to have a .313 batting average eight seasons in a row," he says. "Can you imagine what would happen if they starting thinking of themselves as naturals?"

Despite his protestations, it's clear that Cheuse leads something of a divided life: on one side, selecting books to review for NPR, knowing that his opinion will be taken seriously by millions; on the other, making do with print runs in the low thousands as an often overlooked novelist. What unifies these potentially divergent roles is his emphasis on the quality of his work. In the case of the stories in Lost and Old Rivers (the title comes from "An Afternoon of Harp Music in Lake Charles, Louisiana," an alluring tale of twin sisters who share a secret language), Cheuse has remained faithful to the high standards that have governed his fiction. Several stories recall the Richard Ford of Women with Men in their empathy with the plight of guys struggling to reconstruct their masculinity. With his occasionally acerbic sense of humor, Cheuse also shows an affinity for Philip Roth. Cheuse's language throughout blends uneasy observation (bad breath is a recurrent theme) with deadpan wit. An almost Southern spirit of place governs the stories' settings, which range from Washington to Los Angeles to Aztec Mexico. "All my wives have been Southerners," he guffaws, feigning a down-home drawl.

As the shadows lengthen in his apartment, Cheuse points out an adolescent photograph of his son, Josh -- now a 33-year-old art director in New York -- taken by U.S. p t laureate Robert Pinsky, an old friend from Cheuse's Rutgers days. (He also has two daughters: Sonya, a sophomore at Smith, and Emma, a recent Harvard grad who works as a political organizer.) We've reached the end of an intoxicating afternoon, sitting around the campfire of Cheuse's personality, inhaling his beautifully composed stories. Just like his father, the "old warrior," Cheuse has a million of them.