BOOK REVIEW / LETTERS : A Close Look at Cheever, in His Own Words : GLAD TIDINGS: A Friendship in Letters; Edited by John D. Weaver ; HarperCollins $25, 357 pages


When historians and biographers get together to talk shop, they often gripe about the damage technology has inflicted on their crafts. Thanks to the telephone--and, more recently, the advent of "electronic mail"--the personal letter is very nearly extinct. And letters are the raw material of history and literature.

"Glad Tidings," which consists of nearly 40 years of correspondence between John Cheever and John D. Weaver, is a good example of what we are losing when people stop writing letters. It's a treasury of private letters that allow us to glimpse the rich and sometimes troubled inner life of an accomplished novelist and short-story writer.

Weaver, a venerable and beloved figure on the Los Angeles literary scene, first met Cheever when both of them served in the film unit of the Army Signal Corps during World War II. Their correspondence began in earnest in 1945 and continued until shortly before Cheever's death in 1982.

The correspondence amounts to a chronicle of a long and highly literary friendship between Weaver (and his late wife and collaborator, Harriett) and Cheever. Over the years, Cheever often sought refuge in the Weaver home in the Hollywood Hills, and so the collection is a notably intimate correspondence, full of off-color limericks, casual profanity, low-down gossip, and even a "crotch joke" of a sartorial nature.

But "Glad Tidings" is much more than a collection of letters, thanks to Weaver's chatty asides and comprehensive annotations. Indeed, the book offers so much insight into Cheever and his work, so many moments of self-revelation, that "Glad Tidings" can be regarded as an oblique biography of Cheever--or, at least, the raw material for one.

Cheever, like most writers, complained frequently about money. "I've finished the first draft of the novel," he wrote in a 1947 letter, "but they tell me that eggs in the city are a dollar a dozen so I guess I'll have to write some more stories."

And when he learned that one of his stories had been optioned for $25,000 by MGM in 1956, Cheever downed a pint of whiskey and allowed his fantasies to heat up.

"I drank more whiskey and sat broodily on the sofa thinking how with this money I could have prostitutes of all kinds," Cheever wrote to Weaver, "dancing to my whip."

The Cheever-Weaver correspondence throws off some colorful reflections of the pain and the passion in Cheever's heart and mind, with his comments on country life and city life, marriage and children, sex and booze, art and politics, and the psychic struggle that accompanied the writing of each new book:

"I . . . made all sorts of bargains with the devil," Cheever wrote in 1963, "offering him my teeth, my health and my reason if he would help me complete my book."

In fact, the letters can be read as a seismograph that measures the ups and downs of Cheever's private life in meticulous detail.

As we discover in "Glad Tidings," Cheever was thoroughly bicoastal. Cheever complained in passing of "the crude cultural atmosphere and the industrial overcast of Southern California," but he also was capable of invoking Clifton's South Pacific Cafeteria and Farmer's Market as readily as Sardi's or the Algonquin. And, in one 1980 letter, Cheever teased Weaver about the distinctions in regional dialect that are reflected in the use of the terms spa and Jacuzzi .

"We, of course, have nothing of the sort ourselves," Cheever wrote from Upstate New York, "but on these muggy evenings Mother sometimes cools me off with a garden hose."

Toward the end of the long correspondence, the letters reflect the anguish and physical pain that afflicted both Cheever and Weaver's beloved Harriett. There's even a heartbreaking exchange of letters in 1981 in which Cheever related a troubling dream: the Weavers visit New York "to go trout fishing" without calling on him--and Weaver replied that, because of Harriett's illness, "a dream is about the only way we could manage a trip east just now."

Still, the prevailing tone of the Cheever-Weaver correspondence is spirited and sometimes even swaggering. But what is most impressive about the letters in "Glad Tidings" are the care, the affection and the energy that Cheever clearly poured into writing them.

Indeed, it's a wonderment that a working writer found time to produce such rich and resonant prose in what was, after all, a purely private exchange of letters.

"Mary says if I don't stop writing you and start writing short stories," Cheever wrote in an early letter to the Weavers, "she's going to make me apply for a job with the department of sanitation."

After reading "Glad Tidings," we should be grateful that Cheever did not follow his wife's advice--and grateful, too, that Weaver has shared these remarkable letters with the rest of us.

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