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John Cheever: New volumes spotlight his life and work

'John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings' and 'John Cheever: Complete Novels' recapture his words while Blake Bailey's 'Cheever: A Life' sheds light on the man.

March 08, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds

Collected Stories

and Other Writings

John Cheever

Library of America: 1,056 pp., $35

Complete Novels

John Cheever

Library of America: 960 pp., $35


A Life

Blake Bailey

Alfred A. Knopf: 774 pp., $35


"I shall not, for example, try to evoke a rhetorical chiaroscuro of an intellect suspended in the twilight of the last divine monarchy, exposed to the philosophies of anarchy, communism and socialism, stricken by a loss of free speech; an intelligence illuminated as often by Paris and London as by Moscow, the flower of the clash between Aristotelian and Marxist thought. I shall not speak of Chekhov in these terms because I think he would not like it."

John Cheever's respect for what he assumes would be the wishes of the dead author, from his 1977 essay "The Melancholy of Distance," are more than puckish -- rarely has an important writer suffered such a wide range of ridiculous reviews. After all, they couldn't just ignore Cheever (1912-82). Every chronicler of the American postwar middle class, genus East Coast (round up the usual suspects: Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates, John Gardner), took their shot at him.

The big guns were more succinct: Norman Mailer dismissed him as apolitical; John Updike, perhaps too politely, admired him as a stylist. It was the younger writers like Moody who twisted themselves into paroxysms of isms, using Cheever to prove their cleverness. No one knew what to make of him.

Here's Cheever at the center of the storm: churning out stories for the New Yorker, getting paid for most of his life far less than other writers of his generation did (Philip Roth, Updike, not to mention all the Hollywood sellouts). He wrote easily, and his material was largely autobiographical, though Cheever's crystal ball was clouded by alcohol, a tortured dance with his sexuality and a willful desire to erase shame -- the shame of his family's financial ruin and disappointment in their general plainness. The last thing he needed was reviews. He needed knots untangled, not embroidered.

The impulse to write is enormously complex. For Cheever, one suspects it arose out of his need to rewrite his family history -- in the finest American tradition -- to reinvent himself and his ancestors. This is an exhausting act: Reality is notoriously slippery and relentlessly tawdry. Cheever consistently made something out of nothing: memorable anecdotes from everyday events, stories from observations. He referred again and again in his voluminous journals to the difficulty, the sheer heavy lifting of facts: "the familiar clash between my passionate wish to be honest and my passionate wish to possess a traditional past."

"I was born into no true class, and it was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously," he wrote in his journal. This meant that, increasingly, Cheever felt himself unable to simply live, unselfconsciously, without exerting his will, creative or destructive, over reality. Some measure of distance (what M.F.K. Fisher and others have called "dispassion"), however, allowed Cheever to notice, improvise and extrapolate from daily details without getting bogged down in sentiment (Cheever saved that for drunken evenings). His stories, like Alice Munro's, are exhaustive in their examination of the thoughts behind actions, and, like Munro's, they rarely grind to a halt.

So, whether he felt stifled or not, distance was crucial to Cheever's writing. A person who notices everything cannot be similarly engaged without becoming incoherent. The problem, for the writing, anyway, was that the author wrote himself out of a provenance. In the preface to his collected stories, Cheever wrote that the "parturition of a writer, I think, unlike that of a painter, does not display any interesting alliances to his masters. In the growth of a writer one finds nothing like the early Jackson Pollock copies of the Sistine Chapel paintings with their interesting cross-references to Thomas Hart Benton."

He bemoans the immaturity of some of his early stories (particularly the ones in "The Way Some People Live"); Cheever didn't spring into literature fully formed. There are strong echoes of Fielding, Chekhov, Hawthorne and Proust. Perhaps if he had not felt so rootless he might not have drunk so much, complained so much of loneliness to so many strangers, or begged, literally begged, so pathetically for sex from people half (and less) his age.

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