Our Illustrious Friend : JOHN CHEEVER by Scott Donaldson (Random House: $22.50; 359 pp.)

Salter's "Dusk and Other Stories" (North Point Press) was published in April

At a dinner party in Westchester one evening in the 1960s, the beautifully gowned woman next to John Cheever asked, "What is it you do, John?"

"I'm a writer," he admitted.

"How interesting," she said. "What do you write?"

"Oh, stories mostly."

"Well," she said, "I'm sorry, but I only read the New Yorker."

That was one of the difficulties--he was born known and unknown, taken seriously or not taken at all. He was, pre-eminently, a New Yorker writer. All told, he wrote 121 stories that were printed in the magazine, the first when he was barely 23 years old and the last when he was 68, two years before his death. Only John O'Hara had more. The stories are the foundation of his reputation and represent, together with five novels of which "The Wapshot Chronicle" is probably the best, his claim to whatever position he occupies in the Pantheon.

Not since F. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom Cheever has much in common, has the account of an unhappy life been so enthralling. Unhappy, that is, in the sense of tragic, for there is a feeling in Cheever of dancing toward the abyss, of an elegant, charming man aboard a listing ship, of someone acutely aware of a purer world than the one he was obliged to live in. Like Fitzgerald, Cheever was an outsider, a boy with his nose pressed to the window of a rich house, a man who had his problems with marriage, money, and alcohol, but who knew the forks and wrote like an angel. He was "constitutionally unable to write a mediocre line." Writing for him was not only a livelihood and art, it was a means of making sense of his existence and the world surrounding it. It was "the only continuous and coherent account of our struggle to be illustrious."

Cheever was a second and an unwanted child. As his own mother told him, his father had even gone so far as to invite an abortionist to dinner. Throughout his boyhood in the 1920s in Quincy, Mass., a suburb of Boston, his father was a successful shoe salesman, convivial, traveling widely and earning well, but he began to fail at about the time of the stock market crash and sank into drink and uselessness like the archetypal figure in Arthur Miller's famous play. Cheever's mother--tiny, forceful, and socially involved--took over as supporter of the family. She opened a gift shop and then a dress shop as well as a couple of restaurants. Cheever did not like his mother and hated the gift shop. The scraping and genteel poverty darkened his youth.

He had already decided, at age 11, to become a writer. Barely seven years later, he became one with the publication of his first story, based on his recent expulsion from prep school, in the New Republic, a story that Cheever himself commented might have been called "Reminiscences of a Young Sorehead." From then on, until the end of his life in 1982, he was a writer and only a writer, making a meager living at first but in the end rich and on the cover of Time. His last publisher was Alfred A. Knopf, and his last advance was half a million dollars.

Critically, his early collections were not particularly well-received--he was dismissed as a "New Yorker writer," meaning frivolous and facile. Intellectuals had a prejudice against the magazine. Nevertheless, Cheever continued. He had moved to New York in 1934, breaking his till-then-exclusive connection with Boston, and he met the literary figures. He was lively, intelligent, and had a good sense of humor. Short--he was about 5 feet 5 and weighed 140 pounds--he looked a bit like Burgess Meredith. In his stories, he soon developed a powerful talent for suggesting a whole life in a few significant details and also, gradually, the ability to combine the utterly real with the incredible, the truth with somethinggreater than the truth, and this was the mechanism of some of his best-known stories, such as "The Enormous Radio" and "The Swimmer." "What is becoming evident in your work is a sort of apocalyptic poetry," Malcolm Cowley wrote to him, "as if you were carrying well-observed suburban life into some new dimension where everything is a little cockeyed and on the point of being exploded into a mushroom cloud."

"The Swimmer," in particular, is a work of consummate art executed in one long, dazzling metaphor. Most of his stories he completed in about three days of a fever of creativity, but this one took two months and there were 150 pages of notes for it. Haunting and perfect, it offers more than many novels. To have written even one such story justifies a life.

It was a life that Cheever mined intensely, in the manner of Proust, Bellow, Roth, and others, in which he told his own story and obsessions in various forms again and again: his love-hate relationship with his brother, his drunken father, the quarrels, dissimulation, the concealed unhappiness in families, his own drinking, and all the secrets and transgressions of suburbia, lived or heard about or imagined--they were all part of the wondrous pack of cards from which he dealt. About himself directly, he seldom told the truth, however, to interviewers, friends, or psychiatrists.

"The Wapshot Chronicle," his first novel, published in 1956 after years of failed attempts to write one, was the turning point. It won the National Book Award. He had already won lesser prizes, including the O. Henry. Now he was at last secure in a way that could not be shaken; Hollywood was buying film rights to his work, he was beginning to travel. In his personal life, however, rough weather started--depression, darkness, marital problems, alcohol, all of them as if a kind of price for the fame and honors that now began to arrive. He broke with the New Yorker and his longtime editor and friend there, William Maxwell. He changed publishers, embarked on love affairs, the most noted of them with Hope Lange, and until about the mid-60s had a period of remarkable productivity, but by 1969, he could write:

"I am no longer sitting under an apple tree in clean chinos reading. I am sitting naked in the yellow chair in the dining room. In my hand there is a large crystal glass filled to the brim with honey-colored whiskey. . . . I am sitting naked in a yellow chair drinking whiskey and smoking six or seven cigarettes."

By the 1970s, he was contemplating suicide--written out, he felt, desperate, enslaved. He was also, as first revealed in his daughter Susan Cheever's extraordinary and beautifully written memoir of their life, "Home Before Dark," actively involved in love affairs with men, among the earliest the brilliant composer, Ned Rorem. Finally he reached bottom, a helpless alcoholic pretending to be teaching in Boston, and miraculously, from that nadir, recovered. He was a man of great inner strength. He simply saw the depths plainly and decided he did not want to end that way. A man eating alone in a Chinese restaurant, as he put it.

In the final 20 years of his life, Cheever traveled widely, a kind of writers' establishment figure, taught, and read his stories before a widening public. Most often he read "The Swimmer"--he'd come close to living that story. When Knopf published his big collection, "The Stories of John Cheever," in 1978, it won a Pulitzer Prize.

The end came in a rush. There was illness in a variety of forms climaxing with the removal of a kidney in which there was a malignant tumor "the size of a walnut." It was too late to stop its spread.

Donaldson, a professor at William and Mary, has previously written biographies of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He has drawn this one from customary sources and also from an unusually large number of interviews and letter exchanges with those who knew Cheever. These are listed together with intelligently organized notes on sources, chapter by chapter. The result is a biography of great immediacy. Although Donaldson did not have access to Cheever's journals, some of what they contained was available in "Home Before Dark," and the additional research seems so extensive that the journals, when ultimately made public, seem unlikely to dramatically change the portrayal.

There are names aplenty here, so many that at times they are being dropped, as if at a dinner party, and there are times when the book is more inconsequential than need be, but there are many sections of great poignancy, many funny things, many of electric intimacy and candor. It is often enhanced by Cheever's beautiful command of language, spoken as well as written, for both were much the same--it was all authentic, all of a piece. There is spellbinding power, never more so than in describing Cheever's death, pages that are both terrible and deeply moving; one is losing an old, beloved friend.

There is a thing called literature. Cheever gave us its gifts, as at the end of "The Wapshot Chronicle" in the drowned Leander Wapshot's singular advice written to his sons:

"Never put whiskey into hot-water bottles crossing borders of dry states or counties. Rubber will spoil taste. . . . Never hold cigar at right angles to fingers. Hayseed. Hold cigar at diagonal. . . . Bathe in cold water every morning. Painful but exhilarating. Also reduces horniness. Have hair cut once a week. Wear dark clothes after 6 p.m." And finally, in the closing lines of the book, "Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord."

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