John Cheever: New volumes spotlight his life and work
“I shall not, for example, try to evoke a rhetorical chiaroscuro of an intellect suspended in the twilight of the last divine monarchy, exposed to the philosophies of anarchy, communism and socialism, stricken by a loss of free speech; an intelligence illuminated as often by Paris and London as by Moscow, the flower of the clash between Aristotelian and Marxist thought. I shall not speak of Chekhov in these terms because I think he would not like it.”
John Cheever’s respect for what he assumes would be the wishes of the dead author, from his 1977 essay “The Melancholy of Distance,” are more than puckish -- rarely has an important writer suffered such a wide range of ridiculous reviews. After all, they couldn’t just ignore Cheever (1912-82). Every chronicler of the American postwar middle class, genus East Coast (round up the usual suspects: Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates, John Gardner), took their shot at him.
The big guns were more succinct: Norman Mailer dismissed him as apolitical; John Updike, perhaps too politely, admired him as a stylist. It was the younger writers like Moody who twisted themselves into paroxysms of isms, using Cheever to prove their cleverness. No one knew what to make of him.
Here’s Cheever at the center of the storm: churning out stories for the New Yorker, getting paid for most of his life far less than other writers of his generation did ( Philip Roth, Updike, not to mention all the Hollywood sellouts). He wrote easily, and his material was largely autobiographical, though Cheever’s crystal ball was clouded by alcohol, a tortured dance with his sexuality and a willful desire to erase shame -- the shame of his family’s financial ruin and disappointment in their general plainness. The last thing he needed was reviews. He needed knots untangled, not embroidered.
The impulse to write is enormously complex. For Cheever, one suspects it arose out of his need to rewrite his family history -- in the finest American tradition -- to reinvent himself and his ancestors. This is an exhausting act: Reality is notoriously slippery and relentlessly tawdry. Cheever consistently made something out of nothing: memorable anecdotes from everyday events, stories from observations. He referred again and again in his voluminous journals to the difficulty, the sheer heavy lifting of facts: “the familiar clash between my passionate wish to be honest and my passionate wish to possess a traditional past.”
“I was born into no true class, and it was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously,” he wrote in his journal. This meant that, increasingly, Cheever felt himself unable to simply live, unselfconsciously, without exerting his will, creative or destructive, over reality. Some measure of distance (what M.F.K. Fisher and others have called “dispassion”), however, allowed Cheever to notice, improvise and extrapolate from daily details without getting bogged down in sentiment (Cheever saved that for drunken evenings). His stories, like Alice Munro’s, are exhaustive in their examination of the thoughts behind actions, and, like Munro’s, they rarely grind to a halt.
So, whether he felt stifled or not, distance was crucial to Cheever’s writing. A person who notices everything cannot be similarly engaged without becoming incoherent. The problem, for the writing, anyway, was that the author wrote himself out of a provenance. In the preface to his collected stories, Cheever wrote that the “parturition of a writer, I think, unlike that of a painter, does not display any interesting alliances to his masters. In the growth of a writer one finds nothing like the early Jackson Pollock copies of the Sistine Chapel paintings with their interesting cross-references to Thomas Hart Benton.”
He bemoans the immaturity of some of his early stories (particularly the ones in “The Way Some People Live”); Cheever didn’t spring into literature fully formed. There are strong echoes of Fielding, Chekhov, Hawthorne and Proust. Perhaps if he had not felt so rootless he might not have drunk so much, complained so much of loneliness to so many strangers, or begged, literally begged, so pathetically for sex from people half (and less) his age.
There we go. Cheever left 4,300 pages of journals, five novels and hundreds of stories, inviting ridiculous posthumous speculation (see above) as if he actually wanted to be understood -- by his readers if not by the people who lived alongside, tolerated and loved him. Let us first acknowledge with awe the fact that he survived 70 years, with a deep bow to those near him who recognized something important and bit their knuckles till they bled. The pain and self-hatred Cheever felt, no matter who tells the story, was enormous, the amount of alcohol consumed superhuman, the self-deception and loathing over his homosexuality exhausting, the number of sexual relationships (under cover of a 40-year marriage) bewildering and the arrogance spewed, particularly on his children (chiefly on his daughter, Susan) and his wife, Mary, frankly, depressing.
And yet he emerges: Pulitzer Prize and National Medal for Literature in hand, an honorary degree from Harvard despite not finishing high school, beloved and forgiven by his wife and children, his work aging richly even as the world he described, especially the light and feel of Manhattan but something else as well, disappears faster than endangered species in the world’s rain forests.
Blake Bailey’s biography, like his book on Richard Yates, is beautifully woven, deeply researched and delightfully free of isms. That said, we know more at the end (and it is a wild ride) about the man than we do about his writing (beyond its autobiographical content), or the importance of his writing to American letters. Bailey might have had more stomach for this if he hadn’t allowed himself to become so fascinated with Yankee culture and the New York literary establishment.
We really don’t need the biographer to weigh in on whether William Maxwell (one of Cheever’s editors at the New Yorker) treated the author well or badly. It’s enough to know that Cheever felt wounded and cheated. Bailey keeps his paws off Mary Cheever (it would be hard to judge her the way so many do, especially after she was so gracious with the biographer), but he does intercede when it comes to the children -- understandably, since some of the anecdotes of how they were treated by their father are appalling. He handles Cheever’s sexuality with great gentleness and sympathy for the cultural, ancestral pressure Cheever felt and that very nearly ruined him, and with respect for the young men Cheever left in his wake.
But Bailey is human, and while he does a bang-up job on Cheever’s childhood (setting the stage for a life of raw anxiety), by the mid-1950s, he can barely disguise his disdain for Cheever’s boorishness, the family’s general “cluelessness” during the year they spent in Rome or Cheever’s WASP provincialism, played out on the gossip-ridden, in-bred stage of the publishing industry. Readers will undoubtedly come away wondering how American literature has survived even this long, given its epicenter in New York.
As for the collected work, divided into novels and stories, it is an endless source of pleasure, particularly if you grew up in that neck of the woods. “These stories,” Cheever wrote in his preface to his 1978 “Collected Stories,” “seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.”
“Now on summer nights,” he wrote in a 1960 essay about moving from his apartment near Sutton Place to the suburbs, “the smell of the city sometimes drifts northward on the waters of the Hudson River, up to the wooded, inland banks where we live. The odor is like the stales from some enormous laundry, although I expect that an incurable evacuee could detect in it Arpège, stone-cold gin, and might perhaps even imagine that he heard music on the water; but this is not for me.” The beauty of reading the biography alongside the work (so often not a good idea) is that one knows (or thinks one knows) that Cheever is lying here, if only to himself. He was that exile, in every sense of the word, with the exile’s acute memory; exquisite pain and never-ending need.
Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.
Collected Stories and Other Writings,by John Cheever,Library of America: 1,056 pp., $35
Complete Novels,by John Cheever,Library of America: 960 pp., $35
Cheever: A Life,by Blake Bailey,Alfred A. Knopf: 774 pp., $35
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