The storyteller's story

DONNA TURNER RUHLMANBlake Bailey is the author of a new biography of writer John Cheever. DONNA TURNER RUHLMANBlake Bailey is the author of a new biography of writer John Cheever. (DONNA TURNER RUHLMAN)
By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / March 7, 2009
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Blake Bailey's new 770-page biography of writer John Cheever is one of the year's most anticipated. Titled "Cheever: A Life," it has drawn a long piece by Charles McGrath in The New York Times Magazine and a review in The New Yorker by John Updike, who died in January. Since Cheever's previous biographer lacked access to the writer's vast journals, Bailey's book is in some ways the first to take full account of his torment over his long-hidden bisexuality. Bailey talked about the new book by telephone.

Q. How long did you work on the book?

A. It took me five years - seven days a week, practically every waking hour. Nothing is more fun than trying to sort out a person's life. Cheever's case was especially intriguing, since in his art and life he was an incomparable fabulist, so one had to pick apart the truth from the various myths he spun around himself.

Q. How did you approach the story?

A. The received story about Cheever is that he lived a kind of redemptive fable: that he was deeply tortured about his bisexuality, almost drank himself to death, then got sober in 1975, published "Falconer" and "The Stories of John Cheever," and seemed to make peace with his nature. My approach was to invert that somewhat, because in many ways the opposite was true. The last year of his life [he died in 1982], outwardly the most successful, inwardly was his most tormented, in which he indulged his sexual impulses the most.

Q. Were you, are you, a fan?

A. I am an enormous fan. He is one of the two or three finest American writers.

Q. Did your view of him change, as you plumbed his private life?

A. I became far more fond of Cheever, once I had plowed through 4,500 single-spaced journal pages, and knew what he went through, and the scruples he tried to bring to bear on his daily affairs. He was a lonely man, incapable of sharing his heart with people. The torment was offset by the pleasure he took in his art. He was a tough, old-line Yankee, who never drank when he was working, and was serious about supporting his family and being a better artist.

Q. What does his struggle reveal about his time?

A. Cheever would say that among the genteel middle class there was a terrible imperative to seem happy. If you're not happy and prosperous, you're a pariah, and that was nowhere more the case than in the New England suburbs. That imperative can be a living death.

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