CHEEVER: A LIFE
By Blake Bailey
A 770-page biography (684 excluding notes) accounting for the humdrum life of John Cheever is, of course, totally unnecessary. As I’ve had occasion to note before, few writers – and very few indeed in the present age – do anything much in their lives except write. Cheever was merely typical in being one who did nothing else worth recording.
The rest of his life mainly involved smoking, drinking, and a lot of fucking around. Which he kept a record of in a roughly forty-three-hundred page (mostly typed, single-spaced) journal. A source most biographers would kill for but which in Cheever’s case turns out to be somewhat of a booby prize. Aside from the consistently atrocious spelling and malapropisms (among the more amusing are a reference to his “deliquesence” [sic] in paying bills and his need to experience “large orgasims”), suspicions of tampering (a late footnote suggests that many journal pages may have been “not only retyped but substantially rewritten”), and the natural bent towards placing events in the most exculpatory if not flattering light, time and again the journals are shown to be misleading if not downright fictional when it comes to what should be simple facts. Nor are the journals the only doubtful source. In letters, interviews, and even casual conversation, biographer Bailey can do little more than throw his hands up at points that “smack of mythology” while trying to set the record straight in footnotes.
An easy one: Cheever liked to say that his house in Ossining was built in the eighteenth century, but in fact it dated to 1928. Some trivia: On a footnote to page 428 one person mentioned in the journals finds Cheever’s description of him “wide of the mark” (“I often wore sandals in those days, but never walked around barefoot . . . and my hair couldn’t possibly be described as ‘fuzzy'”). On page 429 another footnote, this time from son Ben, points out that his in-laws, described by Cheever in a letter as non-smokers, actually smoked a pack a day. More telling: An affair with a young woman at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is rendered in a heated prose that gives the game away: “My sexual iridescence is spread out with more breadth than ever before . . . Look, look at grandfather. Leaving a girl’s room in a dormitory at half past three in the morning. . . . We embrace strenuously as if we could leave a fossilized impression on one another.” As one might expect from this, the woman in question “vehemently” denies having had sex with Cheever, and indeed expressed some distaste for being pawed by him at a party. One needn’t be a psychologist to see the overcompensation at work. While the extent of his homosexuality was kept remarkably well concealed, or at least others turned a willfully blind eye toward it, not even Cheever’s kids believed his bullshit about the “stacks of satisfied starlets” he had serviced. Did he even want a physical rapprochement with his wife, or carnal relations with Hope Lange? One suspects not.
Cheever was, in other words, a great liar to himself. Which also played no small part in his fiction. Reading the stories, one is struck by Cheever’s idealization of a mythical good life in the suburbs: a stay-at-home, my-baby-takes-the-morning-train mom, some children, a maid, perhaps a cook and a gardener, a dull round of dinner parties among the neighbouring gentry (sometimes designated friends!) who made up, back when there was a middle class, what was designated the upper-middle part of it. Ah, to live in “this most prosperous, equitable, and accomplished world,” (I’m quoting the narrator of “The Death of Justina,” and the intent is not entirely ironic). It’s almost too good – not to be true, but to be fully enjoyable. It doesn’t live up to itself.
Above me on the hill were my home and the homes of my friends, all lighted and smelling of fragrant wood smoke like the temples in a sacred grove, dedicated to monogamy, feckless childhood, and domestic bliss but so like a dream that I felt the lack of viscera with much more than poignance – the absence of that inner dynamism we respond to in some European landscapes. In short, I was disappointed.
As in fiction, so in life, Cheever was disappointed in the dream. Not because such a life never really existed but because it didn’t matter to him. In fact, he did achieve this version of the American Dream during an anomalous period in American history that strikes a reader today as some kind of weird exercise in speculative fiction. Cheever’s own family was, in the proud and proper terminology of “The Country Husband,” “intact and productive”: consisting of a housewife who, if unloving, always prepared the meals (“She has often served me with bitterness [emphasis added] . . . but night after night for a decade less than half a century she has brought food to the table”), three wonderful kids, and a big house in the suburbs. In addition there was the money, the fame, and the critical recognition (though what writer can ever have enough of that?). “What Cheever wanted,” Bailey says at one point, “above all, was to be a successful writer and a family man.” But he was a successful writer and family man (improbable as it seems in retrospect), and none of that, in the end, was what he wanted.
What he wanted was “large orgasims,” and lots of them. Preferably, if not exclusively, with men. Somehow (as another footnote points out, Cheever apparently received release mainly through hand-jobs and oral sex and “never took it up the ass”) the garbage had to get taken out. Some solution to the problem of his “punctual accruals of semen that must be discharged” (Cheever’s own words) had to be found. And that right until the end. “For a mortally ill man almost seventy years old,” Bailey writes, “Cheever’s libido remained intact to a degree that excites awe and even a trace of envy.” Even at death’s door the sap was still running. Here he is mere months before his death:
Though he was too frail to “throw backgammon dice,” as he wrote Clare Thaw, his erotic drives withstood even the worst ravages of cancer and its treatment. At home he would hobble into the woods to look at photographs of naked men, and a nurse once entered his hospital room while he and Tom [one of many lovers] were “stark naked and engorged on top of one another.”
Engorged! A man with one foot in the grave! The mind boggles.
Of course we all tell ourselves lies just in order to get through our days. Cheever’s, however, were truly fundamental. He idealized a genteel life (the early chapters of Bailey’s book, describing a young Cheever who saw himself as being quite to the manor born despite, well, everything, are unintentionally hilarious), but thought it was all a charade anyway. He genuinely despised homosexuality and homosexuals, but seemed to find something “manly” in his own squalid – not to mention predatory – trysts. At some level he understood he was lying to himself in all of this, but the resulting tension drove him to drink. Which he did on an epic scale.
As with most such bloated biographies, Bailey’s brick invests us with a sadness at the end. We watch as the hero of the tale suffers the discomfort and indignities of a decaying body, his creative powers shutting down and his claim to posterity beginning to dim. That final point being the one Bailey ends on, trying to place Cheever’s work in perspective. My own sense is that little will last. The fiction is very much of a time and a place that we feel little connection to. The kinds of assumptions and conventions it was based on seem only to be a system of lies. In particular the portrayal of domestic life reveals what his wife thought was a real hatred of women (a charge she also leveled at Saul Bellow, and one that sticks). That so many of his characters are exposed as dreamers and self-deceivers reveals some self-awareness, but in the end not enough. Cheever didn’t want to rock the boat. His idylls of the ‘burbs affirm a basic middle-class decency, a world where knowing one’s place trumps individuality and self-expression. The public showed their appreciation by making him an unlikely bestseller and putting him on the cover of Time and Newsweek. One thinks of Sinclair Lewis, for all of his criticism of Babbitry and the values of Main Street finally remaining on their side. And yet who reads Lewis today?
It may be that a great writer, at least in the present culture, simply has to be a great hater. The rest are doomed to go the way of all pop, and quickly too.
Review first published online June 15, 2009.