Review

Cheever: A Life

by Blake Bailey

In CHEEVER, Blake Bailey has produced a biography every bit as
absorbing as the life of its complex and tortured subject.
Following on his masterful biography of another troubled (albeit
much less appreciated) writer, Richard Yates, this latest work
establishes Bailey as one of the preeminent literary biographers
working today.

What makes this biography so extraordinarily rich is the fact
that the Cheever family granted Bailey access to a journal of some
4,300 single-spaced pages Cheever began keeping in 1939 and
maintained to the time of his death in 1982. It’s a revealing
document in the depth of its self-knowledge (and often the
contrasting lack thereof), a painfully candid, often shocking,
collection of writings, what Bailey calls “a monument of
tragicomic solipsism…a history of one man’s struggle to
be illustrious.”

Much of Cheever’s story is at odds with his public
persona, beginning with the image he nurtured of an upbringing as a
patrician WASP. In truth, he was the younger son of a downwardly
mobile family from Quincy, Massachusetts, a worse than indifferent
student and a high school dropout at the age of 18, in 1930. An
autodidact whose voracious reading included Flaubert, Proust,
Fielding and Sterne, he published his first story that same year in
The New Republic. Cheever came of age in an era before
promising young writers could spend two years pursuing an MFA at an
institution like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (where in the
1970s he befriended John Irving and taught T.C. Boyle). Instead, he
lived on the edge of starvation in Depression-era New York City, in
the midst of which he published the first of his 121 stories to
appear in The New Yorker, the magazine with which his
career is most closely linked.

That privation is one of the more startling aspects of
Bailey’s account. When one recalls that Cheever was featured
on the cover of both Time (1964) and Newsweek
(1977), it’s astonishing to learn of the financial struggles
that plagued him most of his life. The Cheever family did not own a
house until 1961, when they moved to Ossining, New York, and
Cheever was locked in perpetual combat with The New
Yorker
, chiefly through his editor and longtime friend,
William Maxwell, over what he thought (with justification, it
appears) was inadequate payment for his stories.

But it was those matchless tales, more so than novels like THE
WAPSHOT CHRONICLE or FALCONER, that should cement Cheever’s
reputation as one of the masters of American literature. His
stories eventually earned him the Pulitzer Prize with the
publication of THE STORIES OF JOHN CHEEVER in 1978. Spanning a
period of more than 30 years of published works and encompassing 61
stories, among them modern classics like “The Country
Husband,” The Five-Forty-Eight” and “The
Swimmer,” that volume is the product of a boundless
imagination and a textbook of the art.

Watching the account of Cheever’s chronic alcoholism,
bisexuality and persistent emotional cruelty to his wife of 41
years and three children unfold in Bailey’s narrative,
it’s even harder to reconcile that life with a man capable of
writing prose as gorgeous as the matchless concluding sentence of
“The Country Husband:” “Then it is dark; it is a
night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the
mountains.” Or the similarly stunning sentence that brings to
a close “Goodbye, My Brother:” “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.”
Through all of Cheever's woes, many self-inflicted, it’s
impossible not to feel a sense of gratitude for the fact that such
beauty can emerge out of one writer’s personal agony.

Thus, and perhaps inevitably, while CHEEVER devotes ample
consideration to its subject’s writing, the focus of
Bailey’s attention is the ineffably sad life of this
tormented man. Despite the family’s generous cooperation,
this is anything but a hagiographic treatment. At its worst,
Cheever’s life, exposed here (often in his own words) in all
its emotional isolation, deceit and self-deception, is likely to
make all but the most callous reader wince.

At the heart of that story is the depressing tale of
Cheever’s lifelong struggle with his twin demons: alcoholism
(he finally achieved sobriety in 1975 after nearly dying) and
bisexuality, to which he was reconciled only reluctantly in the
last years of his life. Both are described in what can only be
characterized as harrowing detail. Considering the mores of
Cheever’s time, perhaps it’s not so remarkable that he
was able to conceal both his drinking and his sexual orientation
beneath the façade of the respectable Westchester County
burgher, but the price he paid for doing so was incalculable.

Undoubtedly it’s unrealistic, even naïve, to expect
our literary idols to lead personal lives as exemplary or as
charming as the exquisite works they leave behind, and the annals
of literature are replete with examples that the contrary is often
the case. “He was at his best on the page,” notes
Cheever’s son Ben. And, as his wife Mary, the victim of so
much of his cruelty, observed, “What’s important is
what he wrote, not what he did. What was important in his life was
to go on writing.” Let’s be thankful that Blake Bailey,
in this monumental work, wasn’t restricted by that dictum,
leaving us with a full-blooded portrait of a man literary
historians, if there’s any justice, someday will adjudge one
of America’s greats.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on December 26, 2010

Cheever: A Life
by Blake Bailey

  • Publication Date: March 9, 2010
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 816 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1400079683
  • ISBN-13: 9781400079681