I read a lot of New Yorker fiction during my high school years but, if I read John Cheever’s stories, I don’t remember any of them, probably because I didn’t understand them. His accounts of life in Westchester County were too far removed from the southern Ohio suburb that I knew. When, a few years ago, I started in on the 1978 collection of his short stories I was hooked.
I followed up with The Wapshot Chronicle and, recently, The Journals of John Cheever. Here I encountered a complicated and unhappy man, constantly complaining about his wife and his children — when he wasn’t declaring how much he loved them . He was constantly looking for the gin bottle in the pantry and reporting on the state of his penis, excuse me, “cock.” It was tedious and offputting, leaving me disappointed in a writer I had admired until then.
Let’s be fair. Blake Bailey’s full-scale biography, Cheever: A Life, goes far to reconcile me to Cheever the man, as well as Cheever the writer. “You are a Cheever!” he would say to his sons to remind them to shape up. John Cheever spent his life trying to be a certain Cheever, spending a great deal of emotional energy denying those parts of his own nature which did not fit. Did this make him the writer that he was — observant, able to wonder at the peculiarities of life, ironic about the good and bad in all our natures? Bailey takes us into Cheever’s world and lets us see not only what he made of it in his years of journal writing, but also what others made of him. Most of them admired them, knowing little of his inner life. Yet, as Bailey makes clear in his astute critical comments, that inner life is there, in the stories. He takes us through the life, year by year and detail by detail. That could be boring, but it’s not because there really is someone alive in there, and we get to know him.
This lengthy account of one writer’s life cannot be undertaken lightly but, the end reached, it seems well worth the journey. His younger son, Frederico, expressed his reconciliation with a difficult father at his funeral:
When I would return home from school after some athletic fiasco or other he would tell me ‘Fred, remember you are a Cheever.’ I would ask what that meant and he would say ‘It means knowing who you are’ … What I have discovered is that part of what I am is John Cheever.