A new biography captures the real Cheever through his fiction
March 22, 2009 1:45 AM
John Cheever stands at the kind of commuter station often found in his fiction.
By Bob Hoover Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
John Cheever died 27 years ago this June. His fiction -- more than 150 short stories and five novels -- is widely praised and largely ignored today.
In his lifetime, Cheever was one of America's most honored writers, presented with the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, National Medal for Literature, National Book Critics Circle prize among a trophy chest of citations and honorary degrees.
"The Stories of John Cheever," published in 1978, went on to be one of the most successful story collections in history.
However, without the exposure of his sordid private life revealed in his published journals and letters and a memoir by his daughter, Susan, Cheever would be fated to wear the tag "New Yorker writer" for good.
"Cheever: A Life"
By Blake Bailey Knopf ($35)
One hundred twenty-one of his stories appeared in the weekly magazine known, particularly in Cheever's day, for its polished, smart but middlebrow fiction.
Yet many of those later stories, best revealed in the brilliant works "The Enormous Radio" and "The Swimmer," had a darkness to them, a disturbing turn that belied the tweedy, New England public image Cheever cultivated.
Blake Bailey's new biography is invaluable for interpreting the fiction in the context of Cheever's life, while, at the same time, being a 679-page slog through the writer's nightmarish struggle with alcohol and bisexuality.
A source at the parent company of Bailey's publisher called the book "the kitchen sink" treatment. These observations shouldn't shortchange Bailey's work, however; his narrative, while sparing nothing, is written with style, grace and wit.
I will focus on the writing life in this review, rather than the appalling excesses that came to overshadow Cheever's work, even finding their way into a "Seinfeld" episode.
Selected by Pittsburgh's Malcolm Cowley in 1930 for publication in The New Republic, "Expelled" was Cheever's first published short story. He was 18, a high school dropout working as a Boston stock clerk.
One of several young writers befriended by Cowley (Jack Kerouac was another), Cheever moved to New York where he struggled for years in poverty, quietly building a modest list of published stories, largely in The New Yorker.
His first collection, "The Way Some People Live," appeared in 1943 and was criticized even then as typical New Yorker fare. After serving in the Army in World War II, Cheever began the slow maturation that elevated his stories from the well-mannered to the darkly emotional works that stand out today.
In writing this biography, Bailey has rightly immersed himself in Cheever's work, bringing an insight rarely found in the study of contemporary fiction writers.
Cheever was paradox, grooming himself as a New Englander of taste and privilege, telling his children, "Remember, you are a Cheever," while conducting his private life as a debauchery and hating himself for it.
This hidden nature of the man emerges in his stories, coming forward finally in "Falconer," his popular 1977 novel about a man who comes to terms with life through the love of another man.
It is "perhaps his most deeply personal work: a tabulation of his own singular afflictions, ordered as a parable of sin and redemption," Bailey writes.
Falconer is a prison, a kind of purgatory, symbolic of the place where Cheever dwelled emotionally. In the novel, his character escapes the jail, unburdening himself of his past.
For years in public, Cheever claimed disgust for homosexuals while conducting countless gay affairs. Barely five years before his death from cancer, newly sober after decades of heavy drinking, Cheever is reborn, coming at last to terms with himself.
Leading us to the discovery of the redemption of John Cheever after hundreds of pages of debasement, guilt and denial is a revelatory moment and the triumph of Bailey's essential biography.