“A lonely man is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind.”
—From the Journals of John Cheever, 1966 entry
While I was moving from Manhattan to Westchester, I did not need the voice of John Cheever singing in my head. There might be a time for suburban ennui, discontent, and yearning, but this was not it. After all, in an article for the July 1960 Esquire, it was Cheever who wrote:“My God, the suburbs! They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory, and we thought of them as a loss of privacy, a cesspool of conformity and a life of indescribable dreariness in some split-level village where the place name appeared in the New York Times only when some bored housewife blew her head off with a shotgun.”
Certainly I did not want to see myself reflected in the middle-aged, suburban husband of “O Youth and Beauty,” who tries to recapture his college athletic prowess by getting drunk at parties and hurdling over his host’s furniture. Or to find myself in the predicament of the narrator of “The Death of Justina”; in seeking to make funeral arrangements for his mother-in-law, he becomes increasingly entangled in local suburban politics and bureaucracy and is finally told by the town’s mayor that they are simply not zoned for dying, and that “the importance of zoning can’t be overestimated.” Or to suffer the frustrations of Francis Weed, the protagonist of “The Country Husband,” who narrowly avoids death in a plane crash but finds his experience does not captivate or even draw a flicker of response from family, friends, or neighbors in the suburban town of Shady Hill--where the appearance of respectability matters far more than Weed’s ruminations on the fragility of life.
It was not until the 1978 Stories of John Cheever, the familiar edition with the bright red jacket emblazoned with a large letter C (winner of that year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the National Books Critics Circle Award, and an American Book Award), that I fell hopelessly under his spell. Cheever’s language, a unique and heady mixture of Thoreau, the New Yorker magazine, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible, caught me on the point of its lance and I could not shake loose. I was mesmerized by the amount of poetry, yearning, wit, and emotion that could be crammed into every fifteen or twenty page story. I have gone back to these sixty-one stories repeatedly; and while they can be appreciated individually, there is a lot to be said for reading them in the order in which they were written. Although the collection opens with “Goodbye My Brother,” one of his finest stories from a later period, the rest are arranged chronologically, and it is fascinating to trace the development of Cheever’s style and to follow the threads in his tapestry of themes.
So beguiled was I by this collection that I set out to track down as many of the uncollected stories as I could in their original magazine appearances (most but not all in the New Yorker). This kind of project is the meat-and-potatoes of any self-respecting librarian. I checked bibliographic records, scoured the bound issues of magazines, sped through endless grainy reels of microfilm, and made photocopies of as many of the stories as I could find. These I placed in a binder which I have in my desk to this day. The whole enterprise took several months, but it would have been easier if I’d had access, as we do now, to the New Yorker on DVD, where I could have traced all the stories with only a few clicks of the keyboard. Cheever himself was not happy with this early work, but they are mostly entertaining and valuable stories, offering glimpses of the masterful late style in its embryonic form. In one of the two recent Library of America volumes (one devoted to the five novels and another to the complete stories), the editor conveniently includes a number of the uncollected stories and other articles, probably all of them you will ever need. Even so, I am still glad to have my homemade edition, although the cheap paper by now is yellowed and crinkly.
My move from Manhattan went well; I was translated to Cheever country without a hitch, and so far I have seemingly not metamorphosed into a disappointed Cheever suburbanite: no entanglements with town authorities, gin-soaked house parties, or dalliances with secretaries or babysitters. After several months of living in Westchester, on a spring morning with the sky such a delicate blue you could almost snap it between your fingers and the cherry blossoms cascading onto the ground, I walked among the trees and once again thought of Cheever. Along with his cataloguing of suburban dissatisfactions, Cheever was a poet of nature and much of the deep throb of emotion in his stories comes from his characters’ need to find their rightful place in the natural world.
I acknowledge this element of his writing on a deep and personal level. At times, during my annual Cape Cod vacation, I will find myself standing at the edge of the National Seashore with the icy surf foaming around my feet and feel a sort of transcendent wholeness that I do not experience at any other time. The redemptive and healing properties of water figure in many of Cheever’s stories, notably “Goodbye My Brother,” a complex tale of murderous tensions between brothers which culminates in a radiant, affirmative moment on a golden beach beneath the sparkling sun:
“Oh what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eyes in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and sister were swimming--Diana and Helen--and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”
Biography can and should be one of the most engaging and even ennobling of literary forms, although it is probably one of the most difficult to achieve. Consider what it would be like to fashion a biography from the messy porridge of your own life! Writers’ lives should be especially hard to draw into focus, since by their very nature they don’t do much but sit at their desks and write, drink and then drink some more, have supportive wives or husbands (although sometimes lovers flit about the periphery), and sometimes win awards although more frequently the acclaim comes after they are dead. Nevertheless, the life of John Cheever has always intrigued me, full as it is of contradictory impulses and erotic ambiguity. In theory, I suppose, we should not regard a writer’s life at all, outside of the work he or she has produced; but it is love of that work which, curiously enough, draws us closer to the writer’s life, makes us hunger for clues to the source of the creation.
Quite some time ago I read Home Before Dark, the Cheever memoir by his daughter, Susan. I pored over the Letters of John Cheever, edited by his son, Benjamin. Somewhere in this period, I also devoured the first scholarly biography by Scott Donaldson. When portions of the Journals of John Cheever started to appear in the New Yorker, they added a new dimension to an understanding of Cheever, this time in his own elegiac voice. The published version of those journals comprised only about a quarter of the total manuscript pages available, but it became an indispensible volume, to be placed alongside the stories and novels. By the time Blake Bailey’s massive new biography Cheever: a Life appeared, I began to wonder if I had any remaining appetite for the subject. The fact, of course, is that I did. With unprecedented access to the journals and other papers, Bailey has composed a massive biography that is compulsively readable, even for a reader well-versed in the earlier works. This scrupulous account creates a complex portrait of a man from a poor working class family who pretended to a patrician background, a witty and charming man riddled with guilt over his bisexuality, a devoted suburban husband and father of three whose numerous affairs included actress Hope Lange and composer Ned Rorem, a man whose disciplined writing and alcoholism were at odds, a man teetering between authenticity and self-invention.
After reading the biography and feeling a great need to reacquaint myself with Cheever’s fiction, I turned not to the familiar stories but to his last short novel Oh What a Paradise it Seems. On my first reading years ago it struck me as a not entirely successful and even confused work, not so much a novel as a kind of fable, “a story,” as Cheever himself writes, “to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night.” To some extent, it still doesn’t succeed, but read in tandem with the biography the novel does illuminate many of the disparate elements of Cheever’s life. There are moments of insight, great beauty, and wit, and the writing still has a radiance that would be hard to equal. This penultimate paragraph seems a fitting coda to Cheever’s work:
“The sky was clear that morning and there might still have been stars although he saw none. The thought of stars contributed to the power of his feeling. What moved him was a sense of those worlds around us, our knowledge however imperfect of their nature, our sense of their possessing some grain of our present and of our lives to come, It was that most powerful sense of our being alive on the plant. It was that most powerful sense of how singular, in the vastness of creation, is the richness of our opportunity. The sense of that hour was of an exquisite privilege, the great benefice of living here and renewing ourselves with love. What a paradise it seemed!”
[Photographs from the dust jackets of The Stories of John Cheever and The Journals of John Cheever]