A comprehensive treatment of the tormented but artful life of one of fiction’s modern masters.
Bailey (A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, 2004, etc.) plunges deeply into the murky, sometimes fetid stew of John Cheever’s life (1912–82). Beginning with his 1982 appearance at Carnegie Hall to receive the National Medal for Literature (more details appear some 650 pages later), the author proceeds in chronological fashion to tell the story of a deeply needy, difficult man. Born into money that soon vanished, Cheever never graduated from high school. Yet he earned some of the country’s most prestigious literary awards, in recognition of his brilliant short stories (more than 100 published in the New Yorker alone) and critically esteemed novels (especially Falconer, 1977). Despite all this acclaim, as Bailey shows in agonizing detail, Cheever’s demons were destructive, even deadly. He smoked heavily and drank steadily, though he finally gave up both a few years before cancer killed him. He had unhappy, even bitter, relations with his wife and three children, and maintained uneasy, tense literary friendships with, among others, Bellow and Updike. Most seriously, argues Bailey, he could never accept his bisexuality. Always attracted to men—an attraction he indulged more frequently, albeit always covertly, as he aged—he nonetheless pursued a variety of women, from Hollywood’s Hope Lange to students in his classes. (He taught creative writing at several places, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.) Cheever could be rude, snide, petty, selfish, jealous, vindictive, depressed, savage, pretentious and embarrassing. He made sexual advances to startled friends and dropped his pants at alarming moments. He was often, pathetically, a dipsomaniacal mess. But, oh, those sentences and stories! Bailey pauses continually to examine a tale or a novel, never in an obtrusive or esoteric way, and notes how his works today sell little—though two Library of America volumes are forthcoming (both edited by Bailey).
Superb work that shows Cheever wrestling with dark angels, but wresting from those encounters some celestial prose.