Monday, September 21, 2009

Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey

Admirers and students of John Cheever’s fiction will find this biography engrossing, thoughtfully detailed, and sprinkled throughout with wonderful quotes from his family, friends, editors, peers, and even former teachers. For those not familiar with his novels and spectacular short stories, it may seem to plod and drag in spots. I have admired Cheever for over 35 years, and actually met him at his home in Ossining, NY. I wrote the following profile of John Cheever last year. I believe it tells much about the man and the writer.

The first obituary appeared in the June 19, 1982 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The shock prevented me from reading it carefully, but one sentence leaped from the page: “Mr. Cheever called confinement ‘one of the principal themes of my work’.” That sentence percolated through my memories of our meeting and all his books I had read.

Several letters in 1978 and 1979 finally resulted in a meeting one chilly November day in 1979. John was dressed as if he were about to sit for another dust jacket photo – slacks, white button-down shirt, no tie, and bedroom slippers.

His desk was an ordinary dining room table and the room held floor to ceiling shelves overflowing with books in every possible space. They spread across the floor like a paper glacier. There wasn’t any wall space, but he did have several pictures hanging from shelves, which seemed as haphazard as the books on the floor.

According to the obit, John believed, that “discovering the liberties one can enjoy within the confinement of one’s own mortality is basically the nature of life on this planet.” His room was confining in a physical sense, but the pathways through books gave him the freedom to explore the universe.

John asked his wife for some tea, as he bulldozed the clutter to one side clearing room for a stack of treasures. As he sat in a rattan chair, he reached back into the clutter for a pen and tried several before he found one that wasn’t dry. “I have a thousand pens here, but not one in ten works.”

The cigarette that he lit in his frustration was a distant descendent of the one that got him expelled from Thayer Academy and provided the inspiration for his first published short story, “Expelled,” which appeared in The Nation magazine, which rarely, if ever, published fiction.

A golden retriever padded in slowly and put his head on John’s lap for the gentle stroking he expected and received. Just then, an obviously jealous cat jumped up into his lap and purred loud enough to drown the scratching of his pen.

John signed the books and talked about his fiction. The steam from the tea rose like the remnants of fog on the Hudson River just outside his window. The conversation wandered through Bullet Park, among the Wapshot family, and stopped at “The Enormous Radio,” a popular Cheever story.

His mind traveled over a landscape dotted with his characters’ families, their heartbreak and happiness. He remembered them all – treasures of his life, fondly recalled.

Clearly there was actual confinement in his life. His daughter, in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer on the publication of her biography of her father, Home Before Dark, published two years after his death, told of his “confinement” by alcoholism, bisexuality, and depression. Perhaps his novels and stories were a means to manage the imprisonment of “the nature of life on this planet.”*

The interview over, I sadly gathered the books. I wanted to stay and listen to this charismatic writer for hours, but I had intruded enough. As I walked down the driveway to my car, I turned and saw him waving one last time.

*Interview with Susan Cheever. The Philadelphia Inquirer. 2 Dec. 1984: 11K.

For those without a unique personal experience like this, the book will fill out the nooks and crannies of a man who lived a difficult life, yet added so much pleasure to so many of his readers around the world.

--Chiron, 9/30/09

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