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Our Illustrious Friend : JOHN CHEEVER by Scott Donaldson (Random House: $22.50; 359 pp.)

July 17, 1988|James Salter | Salter's "Dusk and Other Stories" (North Point Press) was published in April

At a dinner party in Westchester one evening in the 1960s, the beautifully gowned woman next to John Cheever asked, "What is it you do, John?"

"I'm a writer," he admitted.

"How interesting," she said. "What do you write?"

"Oh, stories mostly."

"Well," she said, "I'm sorry, but I only read the New Yorker."

That was one of the difficulties--he was born known and unknown, taken seriously or not taken at all. He was, pre-eminently, a New Yorker writer. All told, he wrote 121 stories that were printed in the magazine, the first when he was barely 23 years old and the last when he was 68, two years before his death. Only John O'Hara had more. The stories are the foundation of his reputation and represent, together with five novels of which "The Wapshot Chronicle" is probably the best, his claim to whatever position he occupies in the Pantheon.

Not since F. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom Cheever has much in common, has the account of an unhappy life been so enthralling. Unhappy, that is, in the sense of tragic, for there is a feeling in Cheever of dancing toward the abyss, of an elegant, charming man aboard a listing ship, of someone acutely aware of a purer world than the one he was obliged to live in. Like Fitzgerald, Cheever was an outsider, a boy with his nose pressed to the window of a rich house, a man who had his problems with marriage, money, and alcohol, but who knew the forks and wrote like an angel. He was "constitutionally unable to write a mediocre line." Writing for him was not only a livelihood and art, it was a means of making sense of his existence and the world surrounding it. It was "the only continuous and coherent account of our struggle to be illustrious."

Cheever was a second and an unwanted child. As his own mother told him, his father had even gone so far as to invite an abortionist to dinner. Throughout his boyhood in the 1920s in Quincy, Mass., a suburb of Boston, his father was a successful shoe salesman, convivial, traveling widely and earning well, but he began to fail at about the time of the stock market crash and sank into drink and uselessness like the archetypal figure in Arthur Miller's famous play. Cheever's mother--tiny, forceful, and socially involved--took over as supporter of the family. She opened a gift shop and then a dress shop as well as a couple of restaurants. Cheever did not like his mother and hated the gift shop. The scraping and genteel poverty darkened his youth.

He had already decided, at age 11, to become a writer. Barely seven years later, he became one with the publication of his first story, based on his recent expulsion from prep school, in the New Republic, a story that Cheever himself commented might have been called "Reminiscences of a Young Sorehead." From then on, until the end of his life in 1982, he was a writer and only a writer, making a meager living at first but in the end rich and on the cover of Time. His last publisher was Alfred A. Knopf, and his last advance was half a million dollars.

Critically, his early collections were not particularly well-received--he was dismissed as a "New Yorker writer," meaning frivolous and facile. Intellectuals had a prejudice against the magazine. Nevertheless, Cheever continued. He had moved to New York in 1934, breaking his till-then-exclusive connection with Boston, and he met the literary figures. He was lively, intelligent, and had a good sense of humor. Short--he was about 5 feet 5 and weighed 140 pounds--he looked a bit like Burgess Meredith. In his stories, he soon developed a powerful talent for suggesting a whole life in a few significant details and also, gradually, the ability to combine the utterly real with the incredible, the truth with somethinggreater than the truth, and this was the mechanism of some of his best-known stories, such as "The Enormous Radio" and "The Swimmer." "What is becoming evident in your work is a sort of apocalyptic poetry," Malcolm Cowley wrote to him, "as if you were carrying well-observed suburban life into some new dimension where everything is a little cockeyed and on the point of being exploded into a mushroom cloud."

"The Swimmer," in particular, is a work of consummate art executed in one long, dazzling metaphor. Most of his stories he completed in about three days of a fever of creativity, but this one took two months and there were 150 pages of notes for it. Haunting and perfect, it offers more than many novels. To have written even one such story justifies a life.

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