Cheever by Blake Bailey. This is a fine and detailed biography of the American writer, John Cheever (1912-1982) published in 2009. And now for some thoughts on Cheever's life and writing:
Cheever’s prose has a tartness that keeps you going; velocity and daring and urgency come to mind. You don’t wonder when you read his work, “What in the hell are these people doing here,” or “Why am I reading this,” or “Why was this written?” There is a great canniness and knowing in his work. A sense of different language registers and the clash between the intimate and the social always coming to the surface. I admire all his stories and novels greatly.
About Cheever's life, as revealed by Bailey, you are not shocked by the concupiscence but the harrowing self-pity and verbal and annotated outcries give pause. He had wonderful kids, a beautiful wife, for starters. He had unique accomplishments: he could have marshaled his own writing classes, he could have called any number of shots but so often (in his journals) he sidelines himself. Did he never pick up a book? Of course but you get the sense that absolutely nothing was steady with the man.
(photo: Nancy Campton)
The absolute childishness and lack of self-knowledge he reveals in his journals is beyond belief. The alcoholism is grotesque. Did he have no sense of the stage he had been granted? Three times on the covers of national magazines? Whence comes the roaring self-pity? He escaped hard bloody fighting during WWII; his regiment was practically wiped out after D-Day. Does that count for nothing? How about a bit of gratitude for that? Yes, of course Cheever writes about the quest for gratitude, love, valor, etc., but still there is an unbounded amount of sheer jawing and complaining across an otherwise valiant life.
Looking at Cheever’s torrent of introspection (The Journals) and afterwards you think: wait a minute. Shouldn’t all this ego-mass be injected into the novels and stories for God’s sake? There is great height and depth here. Do not hide your light under a bushel! It is a torrent after all. Not much gets by him, description, melancholy observation, smells, sound, atmospherics, making odd connections with simple stating or describing what he sees. Crows taking off from a roof, a woman buying a small bag of potatoes in front of him at the line in the grocery store. These are the observations, simply, of a man alive to his lashes. At the same time, my God. What is going on here? His marriage sounds truly hideous; why would someone want to live this way? You admire the arc of his life the redeeming work towards the end (Falconer) but the tools of analysis fall clattering to the floor when you try to make sense of it. At the top of his game he had love and accomplishment, candor, interest, a free life, at least free of the restrictions 99% of humanity toils under, a vastly interesting life, if interest can be deemed a point. So in the end you have to ask, “What was all the shouting about?” Yes, there were kinks in the origins but what about the later adult encounters of success? Do they matter for nothing? (An aside: why repeat the coldness of your parents with your own kids?) He did what he wanted to do for the most part; after that it becomes hard to forgive his cruel, lashing-out preponderances. Yes, it is a sorry thing to read of the money hardships of Cheever. Even those that loved and supported him couldn’t see him through dry spells and into a future of productivity. Easier said than done, perhaps, but was it such a long shot to bet on John Cheever? I think not. (Looks like The New Yorker ripped him off for years paying out at low scale for short stories.) It is unbelievable the pecuniary nature of it all--even at these success levels.
Contrast with Anthony Burgess who just gets on with it and writes a novel, a near masterpiece, Earthly Powers, with a homosexual protagonist to boot (homosexuality, one of Cheever's life-long demons). You wish Cheever had done the same. It gets worse, the cover ups, the hetero-boasting strike you as extremely bizarre.
There's the life and then there is the writing...