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Amber Paulen

Cheever - A Life by Blake Bailey

Blake Bailey


A Life

Two months ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the name of a single John Cheever story. And now I can fit the most well-known of them on a continuum of Cheever’s life, thanks to this hefty and detailed biography by Blake Bailey. Why I chose the biography before the novels is something of an accident of availability, yet I’m happy I did. The man behind the work proves to be as interesting and confounding as the most famous of his short stories.

It’s not my intention to sum up the biography. That would be futile considering the density of Bailey’s book, the enormity of the biographer’s task, especially daunting in Cheever’s case, who left a long paper trail of letters and notes in addition to the 4300 pages of his journals. When Cheever died in 1982 from cancer, he was remembered in the obituaries as a writer of light and brightness. But when his journals surfaced, readers and family members were forced to reconsider the portrait they had drawn of the famous writer. In those journals Cheever described a misery that ate at him from the inside, and which he had named his carfard.

To stifle his depression (or termite) Cheever drank heavily until he hit bottom, then painfully returned to sobriety in 1975. Always a difficult person to live with, during his most drunken years he was intolerable. His wife Mary and him had for awhile begun sleeping in separate rooms by this time. Their strange—but long-lasting—marriage seemed to survive on some very vague terms that they both agreed on, but had little to do with mutual compassion.

Much of Cheever’s carfard could be blamed, as Blake Bailey has, on what came out in the journals to shock family and friends after Cheever’s death: John Cheever was gay. Not only was he gay but he harbored a strong homophobia characteristic of the times. A battle raged within him for most of his adult life, between the erotic desires of his “member” and the rational ideals presented to him by society and his mind. Having a family and a wife were two points against the erotic, and for twenty years he didn’t touch a man and a man didn’t touch him. But this reserve broke down and in the later part of his life, he had many young male lovers.

Or as Cheever told his eldest son over the phone before his death:

What I wanted to tell you is that your father has had his cock sucked by quite a few disreputable characters.

That Cheever lived a dual life, one as a husband—though not an acting one—and father, and the other as a homosexual, makes me wonder what of that duality came out in his short stories. Cheever’s most productive years came before his drinking was too much and during the time when he was decidedly homophobic. Falconer, written during sobriety and acceptance of his homosexuality, deals with the subject forthright. While his last novel, written in the very last years of his life, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, again confronts the subject, though Cheever had second thoughts about including bisexuality, figuring that the truth in the source would be obvious.

But then, too, he had an obligation as an artist—a great artist—to be emotionally honest: “What I come on is that I am writing the annals of my time and my life and that any deceit or evasiveness is, by my lights, criminal.”

But the stories, and most of what Cheever wrote, reveal the duality of human nature on more than just an erotic scale. As a reviewer of The Stories of John Cheever wrote:

“…the stories are realistic in the best sense of the word, anchoring the dream in the concrete example, nailing the reader to the page with ruthless attention to detail character by character, scene by scene.”

Continued by Bailey:

Cheever’s virtuosity is such that one forgets how subtly the sense of a dream persists in his otherwise “realistic” fiction, or, as the case may be, how reality persists in the midst of dream.

It has been a pleasure beginning to discover John Cheever and one I will continue.


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