Cheever: A Life
by Blake Bailey
(Knopf, 960 pages, $35)
John Cheever reached the height of his fame shortly before his death, in 1982. In the late ’70s, his collected short stories sold like the Jaws of the fondue-party set, and John Updike declared that the dean of postwar suburban fiction wrote “as if with the quill from the wing of an angel.” Cheever had traveled a long, hard path to reach that summit. The unwanted younger son of a traveling shoe salesman, he battled homosexual yearnings from adolescence and chose marriage, fatherhood, and heavy drinking as a formula for suppressing his anxieties. Though professional recognition came early, financial security arrived only in his final years. Cheever saved himself in his 60s by accepting his sexuality, quitting drinking, and cranking out one final best-selling novel.
In recent years, Cheever has been “more remembered than read,” said Malcolm Jones in Newsweek. But he’s “getting the Rushmore treatment” this month. Blake Bailey’s huge new biography of the man is being published alongside two Library of America volumes of his complete short stories and novels. Bailey’s book is “a triumph of thorough research and unblinkered appraisal,” said Updike himself, in a review published posthumously by The New Yorker. But 960 pages is too much. Cheever was an unhappy man who radiated unhappiness to those around him, and Bailey’s zeal in documenting that dynamic results in “a heavy, dispiriting read.” Cheever’s own characters were “full of adult darkness, corruption, and confusion,” but at least they had the capacity to appreciate “glimmers of grace” in the everyday.
Give Bailey’s work its due, said Stefan Beck in The New Criterion. Besides being a thoroughly sensitive biography, it’s a “grim pleasure to read.” Still, best to leave the book “to scholars and obsessive devotees,” since it compels you to begin thinking of Cheever’s collective works as a “vast, therapeutic or demon-exorcising roman à clef.” His fiction deserves more air. Even reading too many of his stories at once can deaden their effectiveness, since “alcoholism, adultery, anomie, and failure” are recurring motifs. Taken in small doses, “quite a lot” of his fiction “stands the test of time.” He wasn’t just writing about the postwar suburbs. He had “a penetrating appreciation” of the struggle every person engages in with his or her own “nature and desires.”