November 23, 2009

Blake Bailey: Cheever: A Life

Posted in Bailey Blake at 10:27 am by John Self

It took me a few weeks to read Blake Bailey’s exhaustive and exhausting (770 pages tip to tail) biography of John Cheever.  Living with Cheever even for a month was no picnic: as his wife or children would tell you.  He was a depressive, conflicted alcoholic, notably “enchained within the prison of self” even for a writer: when his children read some of the thousands of pages of his journals after his death, what shocked them was not the detail of his homosexual lusts and affairs (“If I followed my instincts, I would be strangled by some hairy sailor in a public urinal.  Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy, was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol”), but how rarely he mentioned his family.

Cheever: A Life

Blake Bailey is one of a handful of people to have read the thousands of pages of journals, and I don’t envy him his work.  I do however look forward to reading the selection from them – 400 pages, about a tenth of the total – which has recently been reissued in the UK along with most of Cheever’s fiction.  The fiction, after all, is what all this is about, and as with his previous subject Richard Yates, Bailey seems scandalized that Cheever is rarely read these days.   In 1979, a year after his Collected Stories was issued to fanfares (“not merely the publishing event of the ‘season’ but a grand occasion in English literature,” said one critic), Cheever was ranked third in a survey of American writers most likely to be read by future generations, after Saul Bellow and John Updike.  (The rest of the top ten was E.B. White, John Gardner, Bernard Malamud, Joseph Heller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, James Michener and J.D. Salinger.)  Presumably Roth would now be there in Cheever’s place.

What do we expect, though, when even Bailey rates Cheever has having written only “five or six of the finest American short stories” out of his hundreds-strong output?  (He had 121 published in The New Yorker alone.)  As to the novels, all are ‘problematic’ (agreed), but Falconer is the best (also agreed).  Bailey is an astute critic, and his commentary on some of Cheever’s best stories such as ‘Goodbye, My Brother’ is valuable.  But this is not Cheever: A Critical Study: so what of the life?

The life very directly informs the stories.  Cheever’s fictional milieu – the festering underbelly of respectable suburbia – is his life in a nutshell.  The “profound ambivalence with which Cheever beheld the world” and which he injected into his stories, came from the ambivalence with which he beheld himself.  He described in his journal “the familiar clash between my passionate wish to be honest and my passionate wish to possess a traditional past”.  He claimed vaguely aristocratic lineage but his parents had fallen on hard times, much to the bitter regret of his father, who wrote in his own journal, “The desire for money most lasting and universal passion … Desire ends only with life itself.  Fame, love, all long forgotten.”  Cheever himself, the younger of two brothers, was not planned.  “As my mother often pointed out, she drank two Manhattan cocktails that evening.  Otherwise I would have remained unborn on a star.”

His father’s “desire for money” was firmly implanted in Cheever.  He wasn’t free of financial worries until the success of Falconer and the Stories in his late sixties, and when he switched publishers he wrote to Robert Gottlieb, his new editor at Knopf, apologetically:

I’m afraid I was a nuisance about money, but I have this nightmare where I push a supermarket wagon across River Street – macaroni and cold cuts – and am either run down by Roth in his Daimler or buzzed by Updike in his new flying machine.

He had reason to be concerned: unknown to him, his rate at The New Yorker was around half that of Updike’s, and he was happy to sell stories to Playboy instead.  “They pay well and are hospitable, and the tits aren’t any more distracting than the girdle advertisements in The New Yorker.”  Increasingly, in fact, he had no choice, as his old home began rejecting his stories (“my long love affair with The New Yorker seems like an unhappy marriage, repaired now and then with a carnal exchange, a check”), as his editor William Maxwell became leery of anything that strayed from strict realism.  “If you don’t grow and change he baits you; if you do grow and change he baits you cruelly.”

This didn’t help his self-doubt (one of his psychiatrists – a phrase that tells much – wrote that Cheever’s “major personality trait is his narcissism, and underneath it all is tremendous self-doubt”) and his envy of his literary peers.  Names like Irwin Shaw and Eddie Newhouse, wildly successful as Cheever struggled, are not serious contenders now, though he raged at the popularity of Salinger’s Nine Stories against his own first mature collection The Enormous Radio; and was only mollified when he realised, from Salinger’s increasing eccentricity in his later writing, that his rival was “very close to crazy”.  He deplored The New Yorker’s fawning over Donald Barthelme, who seemed to him to be getting away with less subtle versions of the sort of thing that he had had rejected from the magazine years – decades – earlier.  Writing blurbs for pre-publication was “the mortal boredom of reading the fourth-rate novels of my drinking companions”.  His primary ongoing – and one-sided – love-hate relationship, however, was with Updike, ‘the other John’.  Envy for other writers’ success – a normal enough trait – lasted even to his literal dying days, when he wrote:

That I am not on the bestseller list [for Oh What a Paradise It Seems] and Anne Tyler is makes me think myself a forgotten creature in the vast cemetery where the living dead of those who have lost their vogue wait out the last, long year of their time on earth.  Up yours.

(The only contemporary he had unalloyed admiration for was Bellow, whose writing gave him “the experience, that I think of as great art, of having a profound chamber of memory revealed to me that I had always possessed but had never comprehended”.  There is light relief too when we read of how Cheever was awarded the William Dean Howells medal through rivalry and score-settling among the judges, major figures in the literary world.  “I had lunch with Ralph Ellison and asked him if he knew what sonofabitch had put me up for it.  He said angrily that it was he and that it had been uphill work.”  The reason Cheever was awarded it instead of Bellow, in the end, came down to an old grudge over Ellison stepping in Bellow’s dog’s shit.)

With Tyler and Updike, he may have envied their facility, turning out novel after novel as he struggled for almost twenty years with what would eventually become The Wapshot Chronicle (his original publishers asked for their advance back after nine years).  Even then, the result was more like a series of stories than a novel, though this was not lost on Cheever, whose self-laceration was at its height as he awaited a critique from Harper’s (“I can’t wait to lay my hands on this and lose my temper”).  Then again, “one never, of course, asks is it a novel?  One asks is it interesting.”

He was no more satisfied with his home life.  He “loved being a father in the abstract, but the everyday facts of the matter were often a letdown.”  He feared his elder son Ben was homosexual, and hated daughter Susan’s struggles with her weight (“if only she looked right, everything else would follow”).  He took her to see a classical guitarist “hoping to prove to her that the pleasures of respectability are not necessarily boring.  I think she was impressed although there was a certain amount of pushing at the sandwich tables.”  Little wonder then that, later, he felt he didn’t understand her at all.

I’ve fed her, bathed her, taken her up in the night, plucked thorns and splinters out of her feet, loved her  … but now when I speak to her she weeps and slams the door, hides in the woods on a fine Sunday morning, seems on the one hand merry and on the other to carry some unanswered question.

He was cold to his wife, who in turn shunned him sexually.  The “only place I’ve ever felt at home” was Yaddo, the writers’ retreat, though that may have been something to do with the presence there of personable young men such as Allan Gurganus, and the activities easily available (“I have been sucked by Ned and others in almost every room, and tried unsuccessfully to mount a young man on the bridge between the lakes”).  This conflict – between home and homosexuality – can have only worsened his drinking problem: by his mid-forties, he was “longing for the ‘noontime snort’ in the middle of the morning”, and by his early sixties he was so far gone that he had to be straitjacketed while in hospital for heart problems, to prevent him from escaping to go drinking.

When he finally attends Alcoholics Anonymous and successfully gives up drinking, the reader feels a great weight lifting, and almost wonders how we can get through another 200 pages after such a dramatic ‘ending’.  But Cheever, to his family, became worse when sober: “boring and insufferable”, though at least he had his greatest critical and commercial successes to come, with Falconer and the Stories.  This, at last, was corroboration for what he had always known about which side of the line he fell on.  From the journal:

You and I will get along without the awkward and the ugly.  They will ring your doorbell; they will bring you roses and pears; they will invite you into steerage.  They disguise stupidity with seriousness; they sneer at the wit and grace they miss. … So the bores travel through infinity, a little below the waterline.  Don’t deceive yourself with illusions of equality.  There is brilliance and there is stupidity.

It also gave him the public approbation he craved, even if he wrote about it in letters to others more flippantly than in his journal.  “There are a few PR demands on my time.  Yesterday afternoon Mrs Vincent Astor sucked my cock in Caldors window for the benefit of the New York Women’s Infirmary and afterwards I autographed copies of the collection.”  The jokes don’t hide much, however.  Finally, Cheever: a Life is engrossing but saddening, more monument than document, and a thorough investigation into how “a man can be given nearly everything the world has to offer and go on yearning.”

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23 Comments »

  1. Bravo!

    I can handle the pauses in between if your posts are going to be as satisfying as this when they arrive. As you know, I read the Collected Stories about this time last year, finding so much to enjoy and am therefore fascinated to read more about the man himself. My only worry is that I’ll have to go back and read them again now. Thank you for what is more an essay than a review. Are you reading this LRB? Give the man a job.

  2. Mary said,

    Good to read another of your blogs! I also read Colm Toibin’s review of the Cheever biog in the LRB. I’ve never read any Cheever and he sounds to me like such an unpleasant man the I’m not really tempted now. However with Richard Yates I read and liked his novels ( especially Young Hearts Crying) and then read the Blake Bailey biography which was one of the most depressing reads of 2008. Yates was the most recalcitrant old soak both pitiful and aggravating and I wished I hadn’t read it. Subsequently I’ve found it hard to read his novels because of my knowledge of the man. So this is the question – is it dangerous to read the biography of a writer you like in case you find the author was a truly dreadful human being? Should it matter?

  3. Trevor said,

    Hmmmm. I just posted a comment, but it is no where to be found. I’ll try to repeat it here.

    Good to see another post, John, and in such great form! Like William, I don’t mind the time between posts because the posts are of such high quality.

    Cheever is one of my favorite writers. Last week his Stories lost the popular vote for the National Book Award Best of Fiction to O’Connor’s Stories. I couldn’t decide between them. There is a minor debate on my blog, though, about the propriety of O’Connor beating out Faulkner’s Stories too — I think it was quite proper.

    Thanks again for posting this. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, but never could bring myself to dive in. If it discusses, even briefly, the relationship between Cheever and William Maxwell, though, I’m very excited. Maxwell was new to me this year, and it astounded me to discover someone who had such a strong hand in fiction over the twentieth century.

  4. John Self said,

    Mary, I saw the Tóibín piece but (like everything that catches my eye in the LRB) haven’t had time to read it yet. As to your question on authors who are dreadful human beings – and I suspect it’s a tradition widely practised – the answer is of course it doesn’t matter! (I agree, incidentally, that Young Hearts Crying is Yates’ best.)

    Trevor, I didn’t know about the NBA vote (though I’d heard that Colum McCann won the fiction or novel prize). Of O’Connor’s stuff, I’ve read the stories in Everything that Rises Must Converge and picked up her Collected Stories, which I keep meaning to turn to. (For a moment I thought you meant Frank O’Connor, whose stories are also wonderful. I am – and have been for most of this year – halfway through the Penguin Modern Classics edition of his selected stories, My Oedipus Complex).

    Maxwell does indeed feature regularly, and Cheever often thought he had a kindred spirit in him for his closeted bisexuality. I remember reading The Folded Leaf and wondering if the homoeroticism was deliberate, then I read this in the Cheever biog:

    [Cheever's] admiration for that particular novel is worth considering. “The whole of my youth is in it,” Maxwell once observed. Like at least two of his other novels, it touches on the sudden death of his mother when he was ten years old, as well as the suicide attempt that eventually followed. It’s also regarded as one of the first serious novels in American literature about an overtly (more or less) homoerotic male friendship. “Bill never made a secret about the fact that he’d had a brief homosexual life before [his marriage],” said Shirley Hazzard. “He felt he was so sensitive he could never have friendships or a normal life.”

    and furthermore:

    Whether Maxwell was aware of Cheever’s predilections is hard to say, though Cheever certainly knew about Maxwell and sometimes longed to air the matter between them, while worrying, too, over the “devastating turn” their friendship might take as a result. … Cheever wrote: “Here is an old friend, a boy to play with, an answer to the lonelyness that I still seem to carry from childhood and upon which I do not choose to act. And here is a man who is lonelier than I will ever be. He talked about childhood dancing school, his step-mother, this and that – rather in the end like a woman – and I talked about my parents, my brother, and held through it all the affectations of gentility. I avoided the looming truths.” [He] longed to find “some way of expressing our indignation at the fix we have got ourselves into, some reassuring nostalgia for what appears to be a lost and natural way of life.”

    William, very kind. Of course I realised as I started the biog that I hadn’t read many of Cheever’s stories, so I started on them, but stalled after about ten, preferring to read about them and then go back to them later. But I’m looking forward to that.

  5. Trevor said,

    As to your question on authors who are dreadful human beings – and I suspect it’s a tradition widely practised – the answer is of course it doesn’t matter!

    I think Roth’s Exit Ghost offers a fantastic look at this and post-mortem biographies in general.

    Thanks for the fascinating clips from the book, John!

  6. anokatony said,

    Can anyone’s life bear the exhaustive minute scrutiny that Blake Bailey has given to Richard Yates and John Cheever? Someone should probably write an exhaustive biography of Blake Bailey, but no one would read it since he has not produced any literature.

  7. Tom said,

    Welcome back – I’m going to savour this one! Very interesting list of American writers most likely to be read by future generations, I hadn’t seen that before. I’m working my way through the short stories now – incredibly slowly – and saving the Bailey biog until I’ve finished them.

    If the reissued journal extracts are the same as the UK edition I picked up second-hand last year, which surely they must be, then hopefully you’ll enjoy (not quite the right word I know) as much as I did. Very good to dip back in to.

    Have you read James Atlas’ Bellow brick, John (or other readers, for that matter)? I know you’re not among Bellow’s most fervent admirers, but I’ve been tempted for a while and feel I need either a push over the edge or someone to hold me back.

  8. John Self said,

    Hi Tom, no I haven’t read the Atlas – I’d need to be more in command of Bellow’s writing, I think, before I’d tackle it.

    Yes, the Journal extracts are the same as previously published (judging from the old typeface) but have a new intro by my old favourite Geoff Dyer. The Letters are previously published too (and with an offputting amount of introductory text to each section by Ben Cheever, the elder son) and have an intro by Jay McInerney.

  9. JRSM said,

    I’m wading through the letters now, and am both fascinated and appalled, though they seem to just skim the surface of the man. I’ve long been a fan of Cheever’s short stories, and enjoyed (with some reservations) his novels, so this book is beckoning to me… but I still have Bailey’s Yates book to read, and the 770 pages scares me. It’s all too much!

  10. john h said,

    Good to see you back, John. It seems to be pretty much generally agreed that Cheever was a mess as a person. Personally, I don’t have the slightest interest in reading any biography of him, however good. I will maintain though that his collected stories is one of the great books in America’s literature. If his reputation has sagged–and I’m not sure it has among people in the know–then that is an injustice.

  11. Lee Monks said,

    Superb piece, John. Haven’t got through the book yet, I confess, but what I have read has made me yearn for a few days off work, heavy-going though it often is. I will complete it over Christmas, I’m sure. The short-stories alone are worth all the fuss, no question. Fragile, angry, all-seeing insight that was clearly nightmarish to live with. Reading about him made me think immediately of Kerouac, and put me in mind of all the drunken television interviews which are tragic, painful but blackly funny.

  12. Kerry said,

    Great piece. If you are interested in an LRB position, it is absurd they haven’t asked on bended knee. Yours is some of the best writing on literature out there.

    I have only read Cheever’s Falconer, but it is a very, very good work. Unfortunately for Cheever, it is not as good as the work of some of his contemporaries, though. I have not read his stories, which I should.

    I hope you are enjoying the slower pace. I didn’t realize you could get even better…

  13. This makes me think of some of the stuff I recently read about Graham Greene. It’s odd, I read these wonderful books written by authors, books that perhaps influence your life, and for some reason, I imagine that the authors have their lives as reasoned and as ‘together’ as the books they produce. But then I read/discover the reality of tortured lives (thinking about the straitjacket). Oh well, there’s another illusion down the toilet.
    I am going to get a copy of The Falconer. Don’t think I’m ready for the bio yet….

  14. Crake said,

    Hi, John. Sorry, but, what happened to palimpsest?

    • John Self said,

      The licence ran out for the forum software, Crake. It has been renewed but it might take a while for it to filter through to the host company. Sorry!

  15. Crake said,

    Thanks for the reply, John. I’m glad everything is OK.

  16. gary davison said,

    Good evening John. I’ve been scouring some of your recent posts hoping to pick up a recommend of a decent novella. Poppy and dingan was your last recommend and it’s yet to be beaten. And that was way back in the summer, if I recall correctly.

    I know you did a post on, I think, Penguin classic novellas, something like that, which I thought would be ideal for me at the time. Could you point a tired book searching soldier in the right direction? nothing beyond 150 pages, I just couldn’t take it. Cheers!

    ps hope the young addition is doing well.

    • John Self said,

      Hi Gary

      I have a couple of suggestions.

      Dan Rhodes, Timoleon Vieta Come Home – this, like Pobby & Dingan, is a book which both me and Scott Pack liked – a relatively rare accolade! It’s over 150 pages but pretty large type if I remember right…

      Guy de Maupassant, The Horla – this is probably my favourite short read of the year. As a story, it’s available in most selected editions of Maupassant’s work, but I’d recommend getting the Melville House Art of the Novella edition, which has three versions of the story in a brilliant translation by Charlotte Mandell. Makes for a much more satisfying read.

      Hope you have some joy with one or other of those!

  17. gary davison said,

    Cheers John, I’ll give them a whirl!

  18. Lee Monks said,

    I have a brief suggestion if you get a bit of a book reading malaise on (we’ve all been there, haven’t we? We love reading but there’s a situation that rarely but surely arises where a bit of word-lethargy corrodes ones habits? Or is it just me?!): Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard. Cleans the brain out, squeegees it if you will, and reboots the enthusiasm. Soon enough, you’re hankering after Ulysses (and even Finnegan’s Wake!). Hey, if you’re lucky you’ll have an urge to read some Gertrude Stein…

  19. gary davison said,

    I’ll look that one up now, cheers. Lee.

  20. [...] In reading of his breathtaking disregard for the needs of his wife and children, I was reminded of John Cheever, who “loved being a father in the abstract, but the everyday facts of the matter were often a [...]

  21. Tredynas Days said,

    Sought this out after your tweet about it just now. I’d read some so-so reviews of the biog, but your piece does a fairer job. I was intrigued by the coincidence: I’ve just started the Collected Stories, and enjoying them immensely. ‘Goodbye, My Brother’ compresses an entire novel into a few pages – mean and moody, intense. Not sure I’ll take the plunge into the biog just yet.


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