Wednesday March 25th, 2009

The Contradictions

Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey
Knopf, 784 pp., $35.00

What do we make of this man? He lived behind the most respectable and conventional of exteriors, where barbecues and Shetland sweaters and commuter trains assembled themselves against instability, and gave the clapboard inhabitants the promise of peace, the promise of rest. Just how much of it all was a Potemkin village masking tragedy? Quite a bit, and we were given premonitions of it with the publication of John Cheever’s journals nearly 20 years ago. Now we see the tragedy spread wide, fanned out on the table like a sad poker hand, in Blake Bailey’s biography, written with the Cheever family’s assistance and approval.

But if we take the desolation as a given, the more interesting question is whether Cheever universalized it and made of it something valuable, a view into our own gulfs of emptiness and indirection. Was his suffering outwardly directed, the kinked mirror that simultaneously shocked us, let us recognize ourselves, and buoyed us with hope? Or was he an absolutely tragic figure, the kind of creature fitting Joyce Carol Oates’ description, after meeting him only once, of John Berryman: “His . . . general misery [was] he said, ‘The price you pay for an overdeveloped sensibility,’ but I always believed him to be underdeveloped, with a very weak sense of others’ existences.”

The answer is not an easy one. He vacillated between these poles, but as he aged the tug of sadness sometimes seemed to drag away all light with it. Cheever’s problems were in his beginnings, and then more in his exaggerations of them. If Heidegger saw the source of our happiness in feeling “as guests in the world,” leaving us kindly disposed to it, Cheever was as far from this as possible: “I have no biography,” he wrote; “I came from nowhere and I don’t know where I’m going.” While his older brother Fred was the apple of his parents’ eye — growing into a manly, affable, athletically prodigious Yankee — John’s arrival came after his parents’ marriage was spoiling. He attributed his conception entirely to his mother’s having one too many Manhattans one evening: “Otherwise I would have remained unborn on a star.” And then there was the abortionist invited to dinner by his father, something Cheever brought up with nervously chuckling constancy and finally wrote into his bewildering, genre-busting novel Falconer. He always wondered what was worse, the fact itself or his mother’s using the anecdote — as he later wrote in his journals — to “seize the affections of her son.” No one asks to be born (Heidegger again), but no one deserves the stamp of misconception, that constant, clammy tang of unwelcome.

Though his father sold shoes in Quincy, John was reminded that his family line was aristocratic, that he was a “Chee-vah,” possessing “great destiny, ability, great force and grace and love of the world.” Soon enough, Fred was a hockey star at Dartmouth and John was a freshman at the B-list Thayer Academy, from which he was ejected just before selling his first story, at age eighteen, to The New Republic (title: “Expelled”). The ante was upped with this play of the prodigy card. His lifelong friendly rival John Updike described the story as, “alarmingly mature, with a touch of the uncanny, as the rare examples of literary precocity — Rimbaud, Chatterton, Henry Green — tend to be.”

Soon Cheever was selling stories (eventually 121 of them) to The New Yorker, a way in which someone could actually make a modest living then. But the editors turned away as many as they took, and Simon & Schuster insisted on so many changes to his incipient novel that it was disassembled for scrap, its parts used to write “short things, out of financial necessity.” In the midst of the Depression, he joined thousands of other writers who lasted out that time courtesy of the Works Progress Administration. Afterward, he began to flourish again at The New Yorker under its young fiction editor William Maxwell. But he knew he’d never reach the high ground until he sold a novel. It was an ambition he felt all the more keenly having left his rooms at the Chelsea Hotel, “deciding I was tired of sleeping alone,” married Mary Winternitz, and departed to that greatest of famous writers’ schools, World War II.

Cheever took forever getting the novel (The Wapshot Chronicle) off the ground, and he remained perennially, quite vociferously broke. By 1949, however, he was writing an unbroken series of breathtaking stories for The New Yorker, tales in which he perfected his persona as a thwarted but clairvoyant spy among the rich — an anthropologist observing his own people. In “The Sutton Place Story” and “The Enormous Radio,” Cheever’s narrators notice a neurotic, mercenary bitterness behind the façade of a certain “kind of people,” ones who

strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins. They were the parents of two children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the 12th floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theater an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped some day to live in Westchester. 

Of course, Cheever lived precisely there, in Ossining, though as a renter still cursing the meager New Yorker checks and unable to transition to the abiding, long-game player he felt his novels warranted. Perhaps then he realized that the stories would be his legacy, the form in which he found his freedom, and the vehicle that let him push from a free indirect narration into something just this side of magic realism. The couple in “The Enormous Radio” are able to pick up on a Victrola their neighbors’ conversations, as if it were a party line telephone, overhearing “demonstrations of indigestion, carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith and despair.” But these transmissions also remind the listeners of their own venality, the narrator sitting abashed at his abuse of his wife, whose breezy indifference after a weekend abortion (here it is again) shows her as a fallen, brittle vessel of shallowness.

Cheever’s marriage and family life mirrored that of the “Radio” characters. His bitterness over money launched him off the wagon (drinking, for much of his life, a fifth of gin or Scotch a day) and into affairs with Hope Lange, with eavesdropping office girls, with men he’d yearned for ever since imagining himself eventually dying by “being strangled at a urinal by some hairy sailor.” By 1979, when his collected stories won piles of accolades and finally made him rich, his children — pestered and scarred and shamed — were leaving home to become, with one exception, writers themselves.

Much of the infernal underside of his life comes to us — and to Bailey, who wisely uses it — from the astonishing journals Cheever kept most of his writing life, portions of which Robert Gottlieb published in installments in The New Yorker in 1991-92. These diaries are almost unbearably revealing, but contain some of the best confessional prose in American writing. If genius is, as Fitzgerald said, the ability to keep two contradictory ideas in the mind simultaneously without breaking down, then Cheever was almost a genius. The contradictions between the Episcopal Easter communion rail with family and his kneeling for quite another purpose in a men’s room stall (often just hours later) were too great, and he could not hold these sternly exclusive worlds together. But the descriptions of his ardor (Lange called him “the horniest man I’ve ever known”) are bracing, and one cannot possibly imagine a man more honest and pitiless with himself, which was all the consolation he was left with when the masks melted away.

In the end, posthumously revealed bisexuality, the redemptive retreat from alcohol, and the tremendously cantilevered hiddenness of it all recede behind the authority (“alarmingly mature”) of his stories, which earned him admirers like Nabokov and Bellow. Less than two months before he died in 1982, Cheever’s wife escorted him onto the stage of Carnegie Hall to accept the National Medal for Literature. “A page of prose,” he declared, “is invincible.” Updike would remember the moment in his eulogy: “All the literary acolytes assembled there fell silent, astonished by such faith.”

Richard Wirick lives in Santa Monica, California, where he practices law and writes. He is the author of One Hundred Siberian Postcards, a memoir about the adoption of his daughter.

Books mentioned in this review:
Cheever: A Life
The Journals of John Cheever
The Wapshot Chronicle