Jun 13, 2010

PROFILE: John Cheever

‘I have this nightmare where I push a super-market wagon across River street — macaroni and cold cuts — and am either run down by Roth in his Daimler or buzzed by Updike in a new flying machine,’ confided John Cheever once. When he died of kidney cancer, in 1982, he seemed to have put such fears to rest. Falconer was a bestseller; his Collected Stories had won him a Pulitzer; his obituary garnered front pages everywhere. At his funeral Updike called him the ‘leading fabulist of his generation’, while William Styron giddily proclaimed, ‘John Cheevers’s position in literary history is as immovably fixed as one of those huge granite outcroppings which loom over the green and sunlit terraces in the land of his own magic devising’. These days, the granite is looking a little chipped. Falconer and The Wapshot Chronicle struggle to stay in print, and the Collected Stories sell only 5,000 copies a year — not macaroni and cold cuts and no Daimler either. The writer who once eulogised the Sunday-night blues would seem to be suffering from the canonical equivalent of a hangover.

Blake Bailey’s 770-page John Cheever: A Life is both post-mortem and pick-me-up supper: after all the guests have gone home, a clear-eyed sift through the wreckage, to see what still stands. Bailey has a soft spot for suburban-agoniste writer-alcoholics; his last book was a biography of Richard Yates that helped spearhead a small revival of the Revolutionary Road author and drag him back into print. With his mantlepiece of trophies, Cheever would seem a far less deserving recipient of Bailey’s ministrations, although both writers, bizarrely, lived in the same house in Westchester at different points in their lives and both also provided the punchline to a joke on Seinfeld. In 1990, Yates was the inspiration for the character of Alton Benes, a great but neglected writer who sits stony-jawed through Jerry and George’s antics at dinner (‘Which one is the funny guy?’). A couple of years later, it was Cheever’s turn, for an episode entitled ‘The Cheever Letters’, in which George accidentally uncovers a trove of letters from Cheever to his new girlfriend’s father. (‘Dear Henry, Last night with you was bliss. I fear my orgasm has left me a cripple. I don’t know how I shall ever get back to work. I love you madly, John.’) Whatever else this tells us — that the spectacle of writer-drunks no longer commands the same awe it once did, that Seinfeld’s place in the canon is, at the time of writing, a little more assured than Cheever’s — it testifies to the length and breadth of the shock waves that greeted the publication of Cheever’s Journals. ‘I seem to be one of those singular old men who appear in summery reminiscences,’ he wrote. ‘Kind to dogs and children, jolly mostly, sometimes witty wearing old fashioned clothes with a moth hole here and there. That he hankers for the uncircumcised cock of the 14-year-old farmhand seems to be part of the picture.’ Except that it wasn’t part of the picture, not really, and it split Cheever’s readership neatly into two: those who welcomed this new candor and those who preferred his earlier, more charming stuff about cocktails and croquet mallets. Clearly, Bailey has no need to dish the dirt; what remains is to pull the old clod back together.

He does a magnificent job with the life, but then it would hard to bodge that. Whether ducking into the toilets of the Kremlin to down gin (‘Glug. Glug. Glug’), boasting of a new conquest at the dinner table (‘I suppose it is possible to love two women at once....’) or diving naked into the nearest pool, Cheever barrels through the pages of this book with ferocious, porcine energy. He was always his own greatest character, a glorious self-minted fake whose country squire image and plummy accent (‘Cheevah’) served to obliterate any inadequacy he felt about his humble background. The unwanted second child of a family brought low by the great depression Cheever’s father was a show salesman who went from golf-playing burgher to ‘a bronchitic and routed old man’ in the space of a few years, his mother running her bric-a-brac shop in Quincy Masachussetts with ‘maniacal élan’, in Bailey’s phrase. Like the rest of his family, Cheever was smitten with his athletic older brother, Fred, who would in later life was to develop a disastrous alcohol problem, and an abiding fascination with the Nazis. ‘While [Cheever] and Hitler fell out over the second world war and the holocaust,’ writes Bailey, in a footnote, with beautiful tartness, ‘Fred continued to find a certain validity to the man’s racial theories’.

As his biography of Yates made clear, Bailey is a very fine writer himself, as good as it gets when it comes to literary biography — sympathetic to the creative temperament without being overly-indulgent, keenly critical without being overbearing, and possessed of a sense of irony as delicate as smoke. I particularly liked his description of the origins of Yaddo, the artists’ colony where Cheever found intermittent sustenance over the years, founded by one Katrina Trask:

One day, walking with her husband, the woman had a vision: ‘Here will be a perpetual series of house parties — of literary men, literary women and other artists... look, Spencer, they are walking in the woods, wandering in the garden, sitting under the pine trees — men and women — creating, creating!’ The man saw her point and set up a nonprofit organisation to maintain the estate as a retreat for people usefully engaged in ??‘artistic and creative work’ but before the dream was realised, a freight train ran a red signal near Croton and smashed into Spencer Trask’s private car.

‘The man saw her point’ is the sort of thing to cheer you up on a rainy day, and that pay-off is worthy of Cheever, who for all his dying falls, never shied from the opportunity to bring things to a crisp conclusion (‘She shot him dead’).

An obnoxious, precious student, he dropped out of prep school, wrote up the experience in a story that was published in the New Republic, then pursued his fortunes East to New York, where he was soon winning over the New Yorker with his charcoal sketches of the city’s distaff middle-class, going about their business beneath a series of sooty twilights and the reproachful eyes of doormen. Their air of wan fatigue feels a little secondhand now, a throwback to the pre-Salinger age when writers sought to establish themselves, not as the pre-eminent voice of their generation, but rather by sounding even more fagged out than the previous generation. The stories ushered Cheever into the select band of authors who are called ‘the American Chekhov’ on a biannual basis, but they bear scant relation to the young man then running around lower Manhattan, availing himself of all the city had to offer: ‘I was ravening. I came all over the sheets, the Le Corbusier chair, the Matisse Lithograph and hit him under the chin.’ That’s Walker Evans, receiving a Cheeveresque induction into the twentieth-century hall of fame. Here, though, we encounter the knottiest of plot twists, for Cheever did not want to be a homosexual. He wanted to be a New England Gentleman who knew his way around a scythe and who exhorted his sons to realise they were Cheevahs. Such people were not, so far as he knew, homos; and so, one day, en route to going over some galleys in his agent’s office, he ran into a young woman in the elevator: pretty, about the right size. ‘That’s more or less what I would like,’ he thought. At which point the Cheever story crosses over from the sunny side of the street and trundles, headlong, into a fathomless pit of pain.

In his review of Bailey’s book in the New Yorker, John Updike called the Cheever marriage ‘criminal’. If so, it is hard to tell perp and victim apart, with both sides digging in for a war of attrition that lasted 41 years — less a marriage than an endlessly deferred divorce, with Cheever clinging to Mary as a drowning man clings to a life raft. ‘If I followed my instincts, I would be strangled by some hairy sailor I a public urinal,’ he wrote in his journal. ‘Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.’ Such subterfuge may have been agony (‘wincing at every mention of homos’, he wrote after one drinks party) but Cheever’s ability to soak up pain is simply astonishing. Throw in the alcoholism and you have a man who, on any given day, gamely withstood the psychic equivalent of two impacted molars. There’s one moment when he tears the ligaments in his leg, and mere physical pain comes as a relief. Similarly, outbreaks of violence in the Cheever household had a strangely calming effect on him — a soothing recalibration of pressure, like an ear pop in a climbing plane. At one point, he drops his trousers to chase one of his daughter’s college friends around the sitting room, only to be apprehended by one of his sons. ‘When did you start wearing a red necktie?’ splutters Cheever. It tells you a lot that his son’s first thought was: ‘Why am I wearing a red necktie?’

In 1951, the family moved to Westchester, just outside New York, a land of rolling manorial lawns, swimming pools and mock-tudor mansions. ‘My God, the suburbs,’ he wrote, ‘They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory and we thought of them as a loss of privacy, a cesspool of conformity and a life of indescribable dreariness in some split level village where the place name appeared in The New York Times when some bored housewife blew off her head with a shotgun.’ He initially planned a thorough ‘excoriation’ of the suburbs à la Sloan Wilson. And the moment he forgot that aim, everything fell into place. Here is the first sentence of his short story ‘O Youth and Beauty’:

At the tag end of nearly every long, large Saturday night party in the suburb of Shady Hill, when almost everybody who was going to play golf or tennis in the morning had gone hours ago and the ten or twelve people remaining seemed powerless to bring the evening to an end although the gin and whiskey were running low, and here and there a woman who was sitting with her husband would have begun to drink milk; when everybody had lost track of time, and the babysitters who were waiting at home for these diehards would have long stretched out on the sofa into a deep sleep, to dream about cooking-contest prizes, ocean voyages, and romance; when the bellicose drunk, the crapshooter, the pianist, and the woman faced with the expiration of her hopes had all expressed themselves; when every proposal — to go to the Farquarsons for breakfast, to go swimming, to go and wake up the Townsends, to go here and go there — died as soon as it was made, then Tracy Bearden would begin to chide Cash Bentley about his age and thinning hair.’

The subject is ennui, but the sentence could not to be more sprightly, winding its way through all those beached house guests before alighting, like a Hitchcock crane shot, on that flash of bared fang. Cheever compared good prose to ‘a walking figure, preferably young’, in which case he had found his feet. His move to the suburbs gave him more than just a subject, a world to explore and make his own, it gave him a tone — ebullient, wry, charming, blunt — like one of those dinner guests that arrive with a bunch of flowers and leaves a few hours later under a light nimbus of disgrace. At first glance, Cheever’s charm can be quite a shock. Few authors are served by their reputations, of course, but in Cheever’s case the disconnect is profound. People have him pegged as a suburban malcontent, sending up anguished howls against the stifling conventions of bourgeois conformity. They did the same thing to Yates, too, even though the harangues against the suburbs in Revolutionary Road were written as examples of Frank Wheeler’s lazy attitudinising. It seems to be one of the great unwritten assumptions of our age that any writer who writes about the suburbs must be against them, on some level, in much the same way that Miss World Contestants are against any meanies in the audience who stand in the way of world peace. You know who you are.

Here, though, is the biggest revelation of Bailey’s biography, not Cheever’s guiltiest secret by a long stretch, but the most interesting one: he was crazy about the suburbs, loved the natural beauty of the Hudson valley, and even — gasp – liked his neighbours. Is there no end to this man’s filth? If you really want to wreck the man’s reputation of course, you can do worse than The Wapshott Chronicle, the kind of book you’d leave out for a grandmother, as long as she doesn’t mind the odd ‘fuck’. Cheever’s first and best novel, a beautiful unicorn of a book, it bears zero resemblance to any book written by an American, within a 50-year radius. It was published in 1957, the same year as Norman Mailer’s The White Negro, although the two men might as well have been on different planets, Mailer swinging his way through the urban jungle, Cheever snugly ensconced in the fictional parish of St Butolph’s, a seeming paradise where the main activities appear to be fishing, sailing, and inhaling deeply of the ‘lemons, woodsmoke, roses and dust’ in the evening air. A few years earlier, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield had thumbed his nose at ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’, yet here was Cheever giving us a full rundown of the Wapshott family tree. In a few years time, Updike and Roth would be strapping on their masks and flippers and diving beneath the bed sheets; and here was crusty old Leander Wapshott, soldiering briskly through his journal: ‘Voided bladder so many times, brushed teeth so many times; visited Chardon street fancy house so many times. Who cares? Much modern fiction distasteful to writer because of above.’

Soon to be ejected from this Eden are two brothers: Moses, a strapping lad ‘with the gift of judicious and tranquil self-admiration’, and his more effeminate brother, Coverley, ‘one of those men who labor under a preternaturally large sense of guilt that, like some enormous bruise, could be carried painlessly until it was touched’. A version of Cheever’s own fond, fractious fraternal jousting, then, with the two brothers in a race to fulfill the terms of their aunt Honora’s will and produce a male heir. It sounds like the sort of thing that put lead in Fielding’s pencil — indeed, we get skinny-dipping, a shipwreck, a bare-assed flight across the ramparts of a castle at night — but it’s Fielding rewritten in the age of Freud, with the sense of fecklessness gone, and in its place all manner of furtive lusts and fleshy regrets: ‘He watched this gleaming Susanna, shamefaced, his dream of simple pleasure replaced by some sadness, some heaviness that seemed to make his mouth taste of blood and his teeth ache.’ And there you have The Wapshott Chronicle, the world’s first guilt-ridden picaresque. The book’s tone is a thing of wonder, catching this earthly paradise at the precise moment it starts to deliquesce, like over-ripe fruit. Two hundred pages later and you’re still not sure if you’ve read one of those chronicles of fondly-forgiven family foible, or been dunked in the Wapshott’s septic tank.

Cheever held that balance for only one full-length work. The sequel, The Wapshott Scandal, published in 1964, would find Aunt Honora hounded by the IRS, while the rest of the family sink into alcoholism, promiscuity and suicide, and the loutish neighbours pick fights over garbage cans. The amber glow that enveloped Cheever’s earlier work had turned radioactive, as missiles launch in the distance. The derangement continued with 1968’s Bullet Park, in which Cheever returned to suburbia to find the garbage spilling onto lawns, the septic tanks backed up, and a plot that is out to lunch: a man named Hammer decides to murder his neighbour, a mouthwash salesman named Nailles. I know, I know: hammer and nails. Things really are that simple, I’m afraid. Hammer is a seething malcontent with a bitch of a wife, who stalks the neighbourhood under his own personal stormcloud (‘Damn their hypocrisy, damn their cant, damn their credit cards’). Nailles, on the other hand, is a happy moron, happy in his work advertising a mouthwash called Spang, and blissfully devoted to his wife: ‘Nailles loved Nellie. If he had a manifest destiny it was to love Nellie. Should Nellie die he might immolate himself on her pyre, although the thought that Nellie might die had never occurred to him.’ This is ugly stuff: the work of a man snarling at sunlight. Other people’s happiness was always as baffling to Cheever as a piece of moonrock to a monkey, of course. There’s an early short story of his, ‘The Worm in the Apple’, about a family so outwardly perfect that the narrator, their neighbour, is forced into ever greater contortions of speculation — is he impotent? Is she frigid? — but no, they remain stubbornly happy and content: ‘they got richer and richer and lived happily, happily happily.’

That note of cosmic facetiousness, is sounded relentlessly in ‘Bullet Park’, which ends ‘Everything was as wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful as it had been’. The self-parody was predictive, as it always is with writer drunks. No one versed in the later output of Hemingway or Faulkner can fail to track the precipitous drop of Cheever’s novels, or read the shorter fiction he produced in the 60s, with its frets, fevers, and liverish sense of doom, and not feel the effects of the two pints of gin Cheever was downing every day. Even Frederick Exley was impressed with Cheever’s intake, which is a bit like The Grim Reaper complimenting you on your scything skills. The two writers were both teaching at Iowa University when one morning, Cheever awoke to find himself suffocating. He tried quaffing scotch and smoking a few cigarettes for relief, and was then rushed to the emergency room where the doctors found his lungs filling with blood — one more drink or cigarette and he would probably have died.

Naturally, he still had another three years of drinking to go. Finally admitted to the Smithers Institute on Manhattan’s upper east side in the summer of 1974, he shared a room with a sailor, a delicatessen owner and a male ballerina, and spent much of his time giggling to himself and correcting everyone’s grammar. His counsellors saw right through the little Lord Fauntleroy act. ‘He dislikes seeing self negatively and seems to have internalized many rather imperious upper class Boston attitudes which he ridicules and embraces at the same time’, they noted, in one of the more damning piecess of literary criticism he ever received. ‘Press him to deal with his own humanity.’

And that is what happened, at least according to one version of events. Cheever got sober, finished his prison-and-addiction novel, Falconer at a gallop, saw it become a surprise bestseller, repaired much of the damage he had done to his family, and lived out his remaining years in relative contentment, watching Poldark, swimming and scything. But he was also chronically lonely and his last book, Oh What A Paradise It Seems, was a wispy, low-wattage affair, soon blown out of the water by the posthumous publication of the Journals, with their portrait of the Artist as Ageing Reptile. The damage done to Cheever was two-fold: for the Book-of-the-month club it was the admissions about his homosexuality. For everyone else, it was the fact that he had so miserably hidden it. American literary reputations can soak up pretty much anything— alcoholism, addiction, barfights, shooting your wife — but furtive, agonised sexual repression is another matter. For one thing, it’s un-American. The one book the Cheever oeuvre most notably lacks, in fact, is one of those big, balls-out, ‘I-am-An-American-Chicago-born’ novels that swings into orbit around a single authorial alter ego — a Rabbit, a Herzog, a Zuckerman, a Holden Caulfield — while the secondary characters run for cover. ‘I lack for only two things,’ Cheever once said, ‘A necktie and a sense of self’. His fiction is probably the least autobiographical of any writer of his generation, his adolescence taking twenty-odd years to show up in The Wapshott Chronicle, and even then with a thick shellac of nostalgia that now cries out to be cracked, like a code. Many of Cheever’s characters are hounded by secrets or nurse guilt over some nameless crime; now that we can put a name to it, the air of velvet intrigue evaporates, like mist. What are we to make, for instance, of the chapter which begins, ‘And now we come to the unsavory or homosexual part of our tale and any disinterested reader is encouraged to skip’? What are we to make of any of the cruel, frigid wives in Cheever’s work, none of whom make the slightest sense until we come across the sight of Mary Cheever, the sheets clamped tight under her armpits in Bailey’s biography.

Cheever has become an author hemmed in by his rosebuds, in other words, his journals more read than his novels, his novels the hunting ground for literary sleuths — an object of our pity, the most poisonous emotion for any author. I’m not sure Bailey does much to change this. He certainly understands him far better than his previous biographer, Scott Donaldson, and certainly better than Cheever himself, although that wouldn’t be hard. ‘He simply never faced himself or when he did he didn’t like what he saw,’ one friend tells Bailey. ‘And nothing relieved him.’ The portrait that emerges is of a man in constant flight from himself, trailing big beautiful vapor clouds of evasion. Little wonder, perhaps, that Bailey is able to make a convincing case for Cheever as more fabulist than realist, ‘disseassembling and reassembling American naturalist fiction, thereby paving the way for the experimentation of the late 60s and 70s’ in the words of Rick Moody. Certainly, its hard to read ‘The Enormous Radio’ (in which a married couple find their radio tuning into the sounds of their neighbours’ apartments) and not realise that Cheever was a far stranger writer than is commonly understood, much preoccupied with obsessive, altered states, and perpendicular plots, like that of The Country Husband, in which a man survives a plane crash, only to find his family too preoccupied to pay attention (“Daddy was in a plane crash this afternoon, Toby. Don’t you want to hear about it?”). Your best bet is still the stories he wrote in the 1950s — ‘Goodbye, My Brother’, ‘O Youth and Beauty!’ ‘The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well’, ‘The House Breaker of Shady Hill’, ‘The Swimmer’ written in the first flush of his move to Westchester, when he was just beginning to let his imagination out after dark, prowling the neighbourhood like a cat-burglar, or a drunken husband finding his way home. I hate to say it but posterity would seem to have him about right. Cheever’s novels are flighty affairs, filmy and opaque, which leave his solipsism cruelly exposed, but turn back to the short stories and you find him merrily lapping himself, like a champ.

— from my review of John Cheever: a Life by Blake Bailey for Arete magazine


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