Blake Bailey's biography of John Cheever.

Reading between the lines.
March 11 2009 12:03 PM

The Hidden Heart of Cheever Country

What John Cheever, a spy in suburbia, uncovered at last.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

John Cheever is today known as a master of short fiction, the writer who mapped a suburban landscape of privileged, wistful souls. But this mantle was not entirely what he hoped for. "I want to write short stories like I want to fuck a chicken," he declared in the late 1940s, shortly before churning out the run of short-form masterpieces now synonymous with his name—stories like "Goodbye, My Brother," "The Five-Forty-Eight," and "The Country Husband." The frustration stayed with him as he moved his family from Manhattan to Westchester, the commuter haven now sometimes called "Cheever Country." Cheever himself called the place "a cesspool of conformity." He lived there till his death, writing against the ache of loneliness and self-concealment. His best work is the prose of an outsider, of a man in exile.

Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

This exile is the subject of Blake Bailey's masterful Cheever: A Life, published in tandem with the Library of America's new collection of Cheever's work and two decades after the first biography. Until now, Cheever's life came in two flavors: sweet and sour. The sweet version (originating largely with Cheever himself) describes the zestful "squire of Westchester," a Brooks Bros.-clad paterfamilias who peppered his New Yorker stories with jaunty banter, gentle melancholy, and what one reader supposedly called a "childlike sense of wonder." The sour version appeared later, thanks to posthumous publication of Cheever's journal and letters. It lays bare a broken man—a self-centered depressive and secret bisexual who struggled, drunk and lonely, though adulthood. Both versions are true. Bailey's challenge is to show how they fit together in someone who also wrote some of the era's most layered and surprising fiction.

Cheever was born in 1912 into a once-respectable New England family fallen on hard times, and the feeling of being banished from the garden never left him. By the time he began high school, his father's shoe business had crashed, forcing his mother to open a "Gift Shoppe" in their suburb of Quincy, Mass.—an added humiliation to Cheever, who was by then reading Proust and Hemingway and dreaming of sophistication. He earned near-failing grades in two high schools, left, and wrote a story, "Expelled," based on his ignominy. He mailed it to a young New Republic editor, Malcolm Cowley, * whose poems he'd enjoyed. Cowley liked the piece and published it in the fall of 1930. Cheever was 18, and the story's unkind caricatures burned his bridges in the Boston suburbs. Both the rupture and the literary jump-start were just what he needed.

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Still, with magazines scaling back during the Depression, it was not the most auspicious time to start out as a writer. Cheever spent a few years as an urban scrounger—working odd jobs, publishing occasionally in tiny journals—until, in 1936, he sold his first story to The New Yorker, then a solidly middlebrow glossy with a high word rate and an appetite for slice-of-life vignettes. Itwas the start of a "marriage," as he once called it, that was fecund but never wholly blissful. By his mid-30s, halfway through a two-decade struggle to write his debut novel, Cheever worried he had typecast himself as sort of a journeyman of fiction rather than an artist. He started pushing back against the vignette form—his goal, he said, was to write "the noise of the wind up the chimney."

In time, that noise grew into music. Cheever decamped in 1951 for Westchester and launched the first golden lap of his career. His early stories had tended to trace a traditional shape, culminating in an open epiphany or tidy revelation. (The snubbed teacher wasn't drowning herself, just going for a swim!) These first mature pieces, though, take wider and more understated paths. Cheever's 1954 "The Country Husband" introduces us to Frances Weed, a dutiful husband and father who survives an airplane emergency only to fall in love with his children's "frowning and beautiful" baby-sitter. Weed suffers his desire in the endless obbligato of domestic life until a local shrink tells him to channel his anguish into woodworking. Harmony returns to the town. The story concludes with a wandering dog and one of the most tightly virtuosic and often quoted passages in postwar fiction:

The last to come is Jupiter. He prances through the tomato vines, holding in his generous mouth the remains of an evening slipper. Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.

This is a Dionysian wail hidden in the order of the night. Cheever brings us down on all fours with the dog and the slipper—down even to the vines hugging the ground—before flinging us up toward the stylized, aspiring image of Hannibal on his beast.We rocket out of the suburban evening, aiming for the light of grandeur, only to stall halfway and founder. It's a verbal arc that makes us feelthe tragic constriction of Francis Weed's Westchester life.

Cheever, at his best, has this uncanny control, this ability to make the English language fire on every cylinder into the odd, ecstatic regions of the nervous system. His life followed an equally avid course. Everything was Eros: Sex, visceral pleasure, and spiritual transcendence blurred together in Cheever's eyes to shape what his editor called his "joyful knowledge." He had a lifelong penchant for diving naked into ponds and other people's swimming pools. He threw himself similarly into trysts with men and women, carrying the former encounters as a painful secret while boasting wildly of the latter. The flip side of this cosmic randiness was a profound sense of deprivation when the world didn't respond in kind. It rarely did. "I am sad," he wrote; "I am weary; I am weary of being a boy of fifty; I am weary of my capricious dick, but it seems unmanly of me to say so."

This preoccupation with "seeming" was typical. For all his hunger and caprice, Cheever controlled his image in the world as tightly as he honed his fiction. ("Cheever was at once among the most reticent and candid of men," as Bailey puts it.) Most anecdotes he told were either overblown or totally apocryphal. He hid his bisexuality with careful displays of manliness; he obscured his background with a tony accent. Bailey thinks he bowdlerized parts of his journal before submitting them to Brandeis' archives. The goal of this duplicity wasn't always clear, even to Cheever. "[I]t was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack," he wrote as early as the '40s, "but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously."

Did Cheever ultimately see throughthe Francis Weeds of the world, or did he speak for them? As Bailey leads us through the '60s and early '70s, the line between Cheever's "disguises" and his middle-class anxieties blurs almost to the point of dissipation. Soon the writer who'd once thought himself a downtown bohemian was taking stodgy, paternalistic pride in his "faithful and pedigreed dogs," his "sporty roadster." He loved being a family man, at least in theory. He lived in neurotic fear of exposure as "an impostor … an imitation gentleman." The wages of this insecurity were gin. By the mid-'60s, Cheever was mixing his first stiff drink long before lunch. Ten years later, he was gulping wine on the street with bums.

As Cheever embarked on his epic bender, he pressed more desperately than ever at the boundaries of his art. The awkward tension between Cheever's private self and public life had turned into the essence of his work. (That Ralph Ellison was one of Cheever's greatest proponents is not the irony it might seem.) On one hand, his striving let him speak from deep within the culture—self-reinvention in the suburbs, after all, was hardly out of step with the postwar zeitgeist. At the same time, his insecurity lured him away from realism and toward formal innovation. The shifty narrator of his 1960 short story "The Death of Justina" opens with oracular pronouncements about the role of fiction—a boxes-within-boxes conceit worthy of Nabokov. By the early '70s, lonely and dissipated, Cheever was toying with using footnotes to fracture his fiction and reflect "a loss of self-confidence"—just as David Foster Wallace would 20 years later.

Bailey's story crests in 1975, when, squalid and close to death, Cheever went into rehab, never drank again, and proceeded to publish his most successful books, the No. 1 best-selling novel Falconer and The Stories of John Cheever. Yet the biography's nuance lies not so much in its description of this personal resurrection as in its account of Cheever's artistic discoveries in these final years. Just as he actively pursued homosexual companionship for the first time, in his fiction he finally delved into his role as an outsider. Instead of living in exile as a "spy," he turned the lens around to spy on his own exile.

"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," he wrote. In other words, the way to reach the reader was to let disguises fall. Bisexuality appears explicitly in his last two novels. So does the naked loneliness of an aging man. Cheever's introduction to the 1978 collected stories contains this exquisite gloss on his enterprise—an ur-Cheever sentence that soars from wry specifics into the numinous:

Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like "the Cleveland Chicken," sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours or mine, whoever you are.

Whoever you are: There couldn't be a more distant and aloof phrase, and yet it's the most intimate and immediate moment in the passage. This was Cheever's hard-won revelation: If he wrote not merely asthe outsider but aboutthe outsider—wrote himself, in other words, stripped of his costumes, a whoever from a different world—he would find his readers right there with him.

...

Correction, March 13, 2009: This article originally misspelled Malcolm Cowley's name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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