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Wednesday, April 07, 2010


Cheever, by Blake Bailey, is among the most exhilaratingly entertaining biographies I've ever read. I say that even though I came to the book without having read much by its subject (when I was a teenager I read his novel Falconer, but remember almost nothing about it). John Cheever was one of America's greatest short story writers, having published over 100 stories in the New Yorker, but he's not much remembered or taught today. But oh did he live an interesting life.

"I write to make sense of my life," he once said, which makes one wonder how senseless his life would have been without writing. Raised in Quincy, Massachusetts, he was born to to a father who wanted him aborted, was haunted throughout his life by his bisexuality, and nearly drank himself to death. He was cruel to his children, had a wife who almost completely ignored him, and had affairs with both men and women, including the actress Hope Lange. Through it all he wrote some of the most acclaimed stories of the century, most of them chronicling the vicissitudes and despair of the suburban set, leading him to be called the "Ovid of Ossining." He won all the major prizes, including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps most amazingly, his last years were something of a triumph, as he got sober, reconciled with his children, and achieved great acclaim among his peers.

All of that is dramatic enough, but Bailey's prose is so scintillating that the nuggets glisten. There are all sorts of great details, such as how Cheever never wore an overcoat, as his father suggested this made him look Irish (Cheever's father was on odd duck who read Shakespeare to his cat). I'm sure Bailey would give credit to Cheever, as much of the book is fueled by the man's journals, which Bailey read in their entirety (4,300 single-space pages). Cheever seemed to view his life with a droll shrug, and records events with a wit that can't help but attract the reader, despite him being, basically, a son of a bitch.

It's hard to summarize the man, but my favorite parts had to do with his long complicated relationship with John Updike, who once had to dress a drunken Cheever and take him to a symphony. The two were close, but Cheever, perhaps out of jealousy of his younger rival, wrote many biting things about him. Then there's the relationship with his wife, who at some point, perhaps because she knew he was tomcatting with men, turned away from him, both emotionally and sexually. After returning from a stint in the hospital, she told him, "It was nice while you were away to have a dry toilet seat."

The scenes depicting his alcoholism are harrowing. Bailey opens Chapter 33 bluntly: "Cheever seemed permanently impaired by alcohol. His face and extremities were swollen, his speech was slurred, and almost any kind of physical exertion made him dizzy to the point of fainting." That he sobered up after a stay at the Smithers clinic is a testament to his character, which often seems wanting, particularly his treatment of his daughter Susan, whom he constantly upbraided for being overweight and above all not his ideal of the princess-like daughter he imagined. Yet as boorish as he could be, I never didn't like the man, and couldn't help but tear up as Bailey reconstructs his funeral (he died of cancer in 1982).

I was also giddily pleased to see that Bailey includes what might be the avenue of Cheever's greatest posthumous fame--his mention on an episode of Seinfeld (for those who watched the show--it's when Kramer burns down George's fiancee Susan's father's cabin, leaving nothing but a box of letters--letters from Cheever to Susan's father, revealing their homosexual affair). Bailey interviewed Larry David, the writer of the script, who said of Cheever, "he was a well-known writer who was gay." Bailey adds, "One can only imagine how Cheever would have felt about being primarily known as a "writer who was gay," but there it is.

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