Blake Bailey, Cheever: A Life (Knopf, 2009)
It may be impossible to consider the life of John Cheever without hearing his voice. In what seems a duel of arrogance with John Updike on the Dick Cavett Show in 1981, Cheever bests Updike’s lilting eyebrows and imperious posture with an aristocratic drawl that would impress even Katharine Hepburn. He stretches words beyond reason, so that “diverse” and “complicated,” for example, become “duvuhhhse” and “cahhhplicated.” It’s an entirely unrecognizable regional accent, less South Shore Massachusetts than the high school dropout’s idea of a place called refinement, or class.
In Blake Bailey’s sturdy, compassionate biography Cheever: A Life, Cheever is both proud of his good family tree, and miserably aware of his place on a diseased branch full of “sexual losers, sartorial losers, bums at the bank.” Cheever wrestled constantly with bisexual urges (what he called his “sexual depravity”) carrying on several amorous, but oddly stunted affairs with men and women, all while maintaining an outwardly conventional marriage. Sexual anxiety fueled both massive depression (what Cheever called le cafard, or “the cockroach”) and astonishing alcoholism. Bailey offers a succinct and elegant appraisal: “Rather like the tippler in the Little Prince, he drank because he was ashamed, and was ashamed because he drank.”
Bailey is building a career on the lives of morbid drunks. Here, as in his equally exhaustive biography of Revolutionary Road author Richard Yates from 2004, he follows his sodden subject through years of torment, as if to show just how amazing Cheever’s literary accomplishments are in the face of so much self-inflicted calamity. If nothing else, Bailey has shot another hole through romantic myth of the drunken-genius writer.
But Bailey does much more. Any biographer must grapple with Cheever’s curious afterlife, colored by two family memoirs, a protracted legal battle over the unpublished stories, and the controversial publication of Cheever’s letters and journal. Bailey does an admirable job of sorting through the detritus surrounding a man who once called himself “a practiced and consummate imposter.”
Almost in spite of himself, it seems, Cheever published 150 short stories during his life—a staggering 121 of them in the New Yorker—along with five novels. He was dubbed the “American Chekhov” by critics and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for his collected stories, a monument of twentieth century literature. At his death in 1982, he was ranked among Bellow and Updike as America’s foremost literary lights.
Cheever’s star has dimmed significantly, and Bailey occasionally plays the role of literary guardian. Despite his affinity for Cheever’s work, however, Bailey mixes praise with gentle exasperation when the writing fails. Most importantly, he perfectly captures the “detached gaiety” of the best stories—including “The Five-Forty-Eight,” “The Death of Justina,” “The Swimmer,” and “The Ocean”—a distinctive tone that allowed Cheever to build the beguiling fictional worlds that Malcolm Cowley called “a little cockeyed and on the point of being exploded into a mushroom cloud.”
The stories are Cheever’s unquestionable, lasting achievements. Yet he often saw them as merely a way to pay the bills, a distraction from novels, which were the real work of a writer. At an especially low point, he remarked, “I want to write stories like I want to fuck a chicken.”
In this, as in most of his life, Cheever was misguided. Even at their best (both The Wapshot Chronicle and Falconer are grand achievements), the novels are never fully sustained. His slightly askew realism and fondness for digression, which give the stories their enthralling spontaneity, leave the novels feeling inexact and absentminded.
That absentmindedness characterized his life off the page as well. Cheever’s family remembers him as an eternal boy inhabiting a world all his own. And by the late 1940s, that world was often drowned in alcohol. Cheever’s family watched, at first with horror but finally with disgust, as his workdays grew shorter and his drinking nights longer. He would sneak into closets to take some gin as early as nine in the morning, or else drive to the liquor store to evade the watchful eyes of his wife. The effect on his writing and domestic life was predictably devastating. He eked out a minor novel and only a handful of stories after 1966, most of which were rejected by the New Yorker. Later he was abandoned by all of his family save his youngest son Federico (who served as his reluctant caretaker, at the lowest point washing his father’s shit-stained pants), and finally in 1973 suffered a heart attack caused exclusively by years of continual drunkenness. Despite all of this, Cheever wouldn’t get sober until 1975.
From then until the end of his life, Cheever made twice-weekly trips to A.A., and never drank again, even after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1982. His life’s last act might have been one of redemption: his hard-earned sobriety could have reunited him with his wife, helped him make amends with his children, and facilitated a Lazarus-like rehabilitation of his literary reputation.
Yet, though Cheever died at the pinnacle of his fame, there could be no happy ending. While he had become more tolerant of his own bisexuality, he never got over his self-loathing, and besides, he was never a generous lover to men or women. In the end, he remained as he had always been, the pitiably lonely figure who once wondered: “how a man can be given nearly everything the world has to offer and go on yearning.”