Book Review: New in Print

Blake Bailey's utterly absorbing and unquestionably definitive biography coincides with the release of two Library of America collections of Cheever's novels and short stories

New in Print

Cheever: A Life

by Blake Bailey
Knopf, 786 pp., $35

Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings

by John Cheever, edited by Blake Bailey
Library of America, 1,000 pp., $35

Cheever: Complete Novels

by John Cheever, edited by Blake Bailey
Library of America, 960 pp., $35

Possibly there's an element of the masochist in literary biographer Blake Bailey. Having researched and written a 680-page narrative on the depressed, alcoholic, and romantically troubled writer Richard Yates (author of Revolutionary Road), Bailey now gives us 786 richly detailed pages on the depressed, alcoholic, sexually tormented writer John Cheever. You wouldn't want to read these books back to back, let alone immerse yourself in the writing of them – at least not without access to a psychiatric ward or a drying-out facility – and yet both books are utterly absorbing and unquestionably definitive.

New in Print

Like Yates, Cheever's work is overdue a reappraisal, but the artist's life makes for a disturbing read. As John Updike wrote upon slogging through his colleague's published journals, "Rarely has a gifted and creative life seemed sadder." Updike was Cheever's only serious rival as pre-eminent chronicler of the midcentury suburban experiment, and he was also an astute critic. This biography confirms his earlier judgment.

Not unusual for a writer, Cheever lived a life that was mostly free of great drama, yet one that remained fixed in a perpetual state of crisis. He and his wife, Mary, endured a bitter, mutually spiteful marriage for 40 years, throughout which he battled a chronic alcoholism that almost killed him and tried desperately to suppress a bisexuality that all but overwhelmed him. Finally, at the age of 63, he quit booze at last; finished his great prison novel, Falconer (in which he explicitly confronted his great personal demon of homosexuality for the first time); and in 1979 claimed the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978 for The Stories of John Cheever. In spite of which, these last seven years (prior to his death from cancer in 1982) are striking less as a tale of redemption and read instead as a kind of mercy.

As a writer, Cheever's greatest gift was his lyricism, his luminosity as a stylist. He was a kind of prose poet, and in this he most closely resembles F. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom he shared an ability to stop time, to crystallize an atmosphere or emotion and hold it to the light. While Cheever labored mightily over four novels and a novella, he was not a novelist by nature. Primarily he was a short-story writer, one who possessed a distinctly American voice, and over the course of 40 years, he filed a staggering 121 short stories with The New Yorker. As he acknowledged, "They seem in the end to be mostly what I've written."

New in Print

In addition to writing this authorized biography, Bailey has also overseen the publication of Cheever's collected stories and novels, released concurrently in two volumes from the Library of America. Both volumes contain work that deserves to last, and yet strangely – not least for someone who has spent several years documenting the writer's life – Bailey seems to hedge his bets on Cheever's legacy, the question of whether his work will endure. This strikes me as a little shocking. It's true that academics have been slow to embrace Cheever and that by sheer weight of mass Updike appears to have commandeered the title of laureate of the American suburbs. Still, it's worth noting that when Updike died recently, a glowing appraisal of his work by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times declaimed that his early work was derivative – "Cheever without the magic."

And so while Bailey is peerless and faithful as a chronicler of the writer's life, inevitably the story that unfolds – of personal chaos beneath a bright canopy of brilliant work – is a cautionary one, sadly familiar: For most of us, an awareness of Cheever's obsession with his genitals, with the genitals of others, and with the emissions of both offers nothing by way of encouragement in seeking out and (re)discovering his beautiful talent.

Cheever knew this well, of course. In the 1960s, Wilfred Sheed, writing for Life magazine, came away from a feature interview feeling confounded, sensing that Cheever had revealed little of himself. Later it dawned on Sheed that the effect had been deliberately cultivated; what he'd been left with was "the sense you were supposed to have: that the work is everything, the writer is nothing."

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John Cheever, Blake Bailey

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