The wrestler

John Cheever struggled with alcoholism, despair, and homosexuality during an illustrious career

(Paul Hosefros/ The New York Times)
By William H. Pritchard
March 8, 2009
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By Blake Bailey
Knopf, 770 pp., illustrated, $35

CHEEVER: Collected Stories
and Other Writings

Library of America, 1,040 pp., $35

CHEEVER: Complete Novels
Library of America, 933 pp., $35

When John Cheever, mortally ill, received the National Medal for Literature in 1982, William Styron called his position in literary history "immovably fixed as one of those huge granite outcroppings which loom over the green lawns and sunlit terraces in the land of his own magic devising." Literary history would have a different story to tell, as Blake Bailey points out in this surely definitive biography of the writer, "Cheever: A Life."

In 1979, when Cheever's collected stories won the Pulitzer Prize, a survey of living writers ranked him third, behind Bellow and Updike. Three decades later, it is unlikely he would rank even in the top 20, since Cheever is not usually taught in college classrooms and doesn't seem to have exerted traceable influence on current fictionists. More than his contemporary New Englanders, Salinger and Updike, he suffers from being typed as exclusively a "New Yorker writer" whose stories cataloged a time and place that now seem restrictive and provincial. Far from his position in American letters being akin to a granite outcropping, it more resembles a barely observable niche.

Bailey previously published a biography of Richard Yates, another talented and self-destructive writer. Cheever's life had been capably presented by Scott Donaldson six years after his death, making use of material then available, but Bailey, working with the cooperation of Cheever's wife and three children, was given the run of 4,000 pages of the writer's journals. In their combination of hijinks, sexual and alcoholic confession, fantasy, and self-lacerating reflections, they give us as real a John Cheever as we could desire. At any rate they demonstrate that above all else this ebullient, gifted, and depressed man needed to turn everything into sentences.

"We seem to have got the provincial eccentricities of New England, but we seem to have got them wrong," Cheever noted in his journals after the death of his older brother, Fred. Fred was an alcoholic, as was Cheever's father, and one of the most frequently appearing words in this biography is "martini." In 1975, living alone in Boston and teaching at Boston University, Cheever was taken in a state of collapse to Smithers, an alcoholism treatment center in New York City. He never drank again. The booze problem was undoubtedly tied up with another eccentricity got wrong, Cheever's sexual inclination. In one of his journal entries from 1963, he describes "some sort of conflict . . . a man who has homosexual instincts and genuinely detests homosexuals. They seem to him unserious, humorless and revolting." Bailey reports that Mary Cheever, from the beginning of their marriage, "sensed that he wasn't entirely masculine"; increasingly, and especially after his rehabilitation, his strongest attentions were focused on younger men, of whom an aspiring writer, Max Zimmer, was foremost. This was the same (or was it?) Cheever who had a long-standing affair - sporadic, but including sex - with the Hollywood actress Hope Lange, whom he would see when she visited New York.

In his epilogue, Bailey provides a lengthy, informative account of Cheever's literary fortunes since his death. His daughter Susan's account of him in "Home Before Dark," and his son Benjamin's editing and publication of a group of letters, revealed their father to have been something more complex than the "celebrant of sunlight" Time magazine called him when he died. To cap things off, a published selection from the journals in 1991 gave vivid testimony to the presence of an unsunny life, during most of which, as Benjamin Cheever put it, his father "suffered from a loneliness so acute as to be practically indistinguishable from a physical illness."

Bailey thinks Cheever is due for a revival, and cites enthusiastic testimony on his behalf by younger writers like Dave Eggers and Rick Moody. To accompany the biography, he has edited "Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings" and "Cheever: Complete Novels" for the Library of America, thus handily enabling readers to judge how much the writer still weighs. My judgment, scarcely a controversial one, is that the stories fare much better than the novels. Cheever struggled over the latter, especially his first one, "The Wapshot Chronicle," a book long on charm but hard to read through with any sense of forward-moving continuity. His third novel, "Bullet Park," is arguably his best. Still, after a fine opening section in which the sorrows of Eliot Nailles and his son Tony are portrayed, the book becomes, with the stalking of Nailles by the would-be killer Paul Hammer, increasingly preposterous. Cheever's prison novel, "Falconer," feels unredeemably sordid, and his short, final one, "Oh What a Paradise It Seems," written when he was near death, is more squib-like than substantial.

The stories are another matter, and even though Cheever writhed under the necessity of producing one after another - to keep his hand in, to help pay the bills - the cumulative harvest is impressive. He has been celebrated all too frequently as the "laureate of the suburbs," who faithfully recorded the way things were back in the 1940s and 1950s. His actual contribution was stranger and more distinctive. Although he termed himself a " 'spy' among the middle classes," as if he were an unobserved infiltrator who stole away with the goods, he mainly spied on himself. That is, he imagined, ever more strongly as the years went on, extreme, bizarre versions of that self. Johnny Hake in "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," Francis Weed in "The Country Husband," Neddy Merrill, who decides in "The Swimmer" to swim his way home through neighborhood backyard pools - all are fantastic versions of Cheever, whether things turn out happily or disastrously for them. In what is for me his most gripping story, "The Five-Forty-Eight," a New York City businessman, taking the train to his suburban home in Shady Hill, is followed and eventually humiliated at gunpoint with his face in the dirt, by a woman he had hired, slept with, then let go - a dark version of Cheever as the haunted and guilty man. A reviewer of one of his later collections, "The Brigadier and the Golf Widow," said that his sensibility had become "so weird that it veers perilously close to Charles Addams," a good corrective to the notion that he was an "objective" faithful chronicler of the middle class.

For all that sensibility's gloom and doom, there was something irrepressible about Cheever's spirits that resisted the tragic. Bailey's biography is absorbing, mainly because he gets down his subject's humorous staying power, even in the midst of spiritual turmoil. Perhaps Mary Cheever may be given the last word, as Bailey transcribes it: "He may be unfaithful, he may be a drunk, but he always came home for dinner."

William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His upcoming book is "On Poets and Poetry."

CHEEVER: A Life By Blake Bailey

Knopf, 770 pp., illustrated, $35

CHEEVER: Collected Stories and Other Writings Library of America, 1,040 pp., $35

CHEEVER: Complete Novels Library of America, 933 pp., $35

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