You'll have to go out and buy a hard copy of this month's Vanity Fair, because James Wolcott's review of Blake Bailey's new biography of John Cheever isn't online, unfortunately. But Maud Newton's review for Barnes and Noble is.
Both are positive reviews but I don't think I'll be reading the book now. I don't want to spend 784 pages in the company of that man.
John Cheever could be a loathsome human being.
That there might have been reasons for his loathsomeness that invite sympathy doesn't change the fact that he was an obnoxious drunk, an emotional bully and sadist, a sexual predator, a rotten husband and an alternately cruel and neglectful father, and it wasn't as though, like Hemingway, he punctuated his awfulness with acts of heroism and generosity. He didn't counterbalance his woeful private life with a devotion to art and literature or by involving himself in public life. When he took up teaching, he did it for the money and, apparently, the opportunity it provided him to get close to and then try to seduce his students. Cheever had a talent for perverting, short-circuiting, and canceling out every kind and decent impulse he had. The best thing about him seems to have been that he was aware of this tendency enough to keep himself somewhat aloof from his daughter Susan, whose memoir Home Before Dark suggests that what she loved about her father was that he didn't go out of his way to hurt her the way he did her mother and brother.
For most of his life, Cheever was a homophobic gay man who was nonetheless narcissistically fascinated by his own sexual urges. He hated being gay, he hated what he regarded as gayness in other men, including his own son, and he spent a lot of time and energy pretending to be the kind of straight man he believed he ought to be, except that he had no clear idea what that kind of man was. For a while, he tried to turn himself into what he thought was his place and time's ideal man, the gray flannel suited suburban husband. The problem was that he hated that ideal as much as he hated his own homosexuality. Plus he was pretty much a failure at the part, having no office to commute to and not making nearly enough money as a writer to support the lifestyle. Another reason for despising himself.
As I said, there are reasons to feel sympathy for him, but it really is a matter of feeling sorry for the person he might have been, and that person is almost an entirely imaginative character since Cheever rarely let that person out, if there was actually any of that person inside him. He hid deep within himself and he then he hid what was left inside a bottle. At times in his life he seemed to be trying to drink himself to death. Often he managed a state of near somnambulism. When I was at Iowa, a decade after he taught there, stories of his drunkenness were still being told with awe, although they were mostly stories of his showing up stumbling and incoherent in class or saying nasty things to students and colleagues at parties, and not even particularly witty nasty things.
At this point, when the subject stops being worth writing about as a person the biographer can usually turn to writing about him as an artist and focus on the work. I can't tell from Maud's or Jim's reviews how much of his book Bailey devotes to that, but Cheever himself made that a challenge. Compared to Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth, or Flannery O'Connor, Cheever was not an intellectual, There's a reason there's no companion volume to The Stories of John Cheever called The Essays of John Cheever. And unlike Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he wasn't passionately engaged with the art and literature of his time. His Journals show him to have been a thoughtful reader but not an especially insightful critic. And his attitude towards his own art was a lot like his attitude towards his sexuality. Writing was a weak man's substitute for a real job. Plus he had to write for money and no matter how hard he tried he didn't make enough of it and that alternately enraged him and demoralized him but always gave him grounds for self-contempt.
That leaves the work itself, and when you get down to it there turns out not to be as much as you might have thought. Four novels, which are bad, and a dozen or so short stories that are worth keeping. Of course, several of those are among the best in American literature.
In the grand scheme of things, I'm not sure where Cheever will finally rank. Henry James, Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Eudora Welty, each wrote more great stories and wrote with more variety and depth. Flannery O'Connor was the best of Cheever's hey-day. Of "the three Johns," Cheever, Updike, and O'Hara, I'd say it was a toss-up between Updike and Cheever, although I actually prefer O'Hara's stories to theirs. They're more inherently dramatic and character-driven and show a greater understanding of the way the world actually works, plus O'Hara's clanging and obvious prose isn't as much of a flaw as it is in his novels since his stories tend to be mostly dialogue and he was awfully good at capturing the way people talk to each other. Cheever's stories are mood pieces. Plot and character are only the generators of a mood. All his best stories can be summarized with the same opening "A man..." as in "A man on his way home from work is inexplicably overcome by the urge to swim home by way of all his neighbors' pools." "A man trying to re-live his glory days as a student athlete sets up chairs in his living room to hurdle." "A man is forced off his train at gunpoint and made to beg for his life from a woman with whom he had a fleeting affair."
But what's important in these stories is not the "man" himself but his feelings at the moment. In "The Swimmer" it's his job and marriage-induced ennui. In "O Youth and Beaty!" it's his self-hatred for the lesser man he's become. In "The Five-Forty-Eight" it's his self-complacency and then its replacement by terror and self-disgust.
Cheever is often described, and sometimes close to dismissed, as the writer of his times, the historian by way of fiction of 1950s Suburban America and its discontents, as if what he was up to in his short stories was what Yates was doing in his novel Revolutionary Road .
But I think this is a case of mistaking the people who read Cheever's stories in the New Yorker for the characters in his stories. Cheever's plots are improbable, his landscapes are surreal (Re-read the description of the storm and the crashlanding in the corn field in "The Country Husband" and you'll see that Cheever did not paint from life.), and his characters behave in fantastical ways. He was not writing about the real suburbs in the real 1950s. Cheever wasn't any more engaged with his time and place than he was with anyone or anything else. Always hiding with himself, he wrote about what he found in there. He wasn't writing about a purely imaginary world, but he was writing about a world transfigured by his imagination as if in dreams, and like dreams his stories are symbolic, oblique, and not to be understood in terms of simple correspondences. The characters and the things that happen to them are not themselves or not merely themselves.
Another way of saying this is that Cheever wrote fairy tales. I'm not kidding. Something close to magic happens in all of them, and if there are few actual fairies, there are plenty of imps and demons.
This is why the writer I'd compare Cheever to, and possibly pair on a syllabus, is not either of the other two Johns, but the great short story writer I deliberately left off the list above.
Hawthorne wrote fairy tales too, and I think explored the same symbolic ground to find the same things as Cheever, although Hawthorne saw them as more generally characteristic of human nature and the human predicament and Cheever felt and took them more personally---the terrible guilt and self-loathing and sense of isolation at the heart of most men and women and the fear that life here on earth is a form of damnation.
John Updike paints a much more sympathetic portrait of Cheever in his review of Bailey's book, the last one he wrote for the New Yorker. It's called Basically Decent.
Updated to let Cheever and Updike speak for themselves: Dick Cavett remembers having both writers on his show together, with video.
Thanks to Michael Bartley for the link.