Cheever: A Life
by Blake Bailey
John Cheever is remembered as one of America’s preeminent writers of the 20th century, from his celebrated collection of stories to his debut novel The Wapshot Chronicle, which is lodged at number 63 on the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels of the 20th century. Famous for chronicling the ennui of the middle class, Cheever was a New England Yankee, the most famous resident of Ossining, New York (consequently also home to Don Draper, an emerging icon of the American middle class myth).
Writer, father and teacher, Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life also paints the author, who died from cancer in 1982, as a repressed homosexual, alcoholic and self-made character. Rather than lionize the man, Cheever instead peels away the nuanced performance of Cheever by Cheever – the fake accent, the family man, the self-made writer who represented the paragon of the American Dream – and paints a portrait of a man haunted by his sexual predilections, worn down by low self-esteem, turning to the bottle and emotional terrorism to stave off his fears.
At an exhaustive 679 pages (not including another 100 pages of notes), Cheever reads like the best fiction, presenting us with a meaty, well-rounded look at one of our most beloved writers. But like the best biographies, such as Nancy Milford’s look at Edna St. Vincent Millay in Savage Beauty, Cheever is about more than its subject. It’s about a time and a place, a chronicle of the world that shaped the writer. Bailey intricately follows Cheever’s life from 1912 to 1982, logging in painstaking detail not only the changes happening within Cheever, but also in the America around him.
Cheever (pronounced “Cheevah” by the author) was born in Quincy, Massachusetts to alcoholic parents. His journals hint at a homosexual relationship with his brother Fred at a young age, a relationship he sought to emulate for the rest of his life, despite his external protestations against homosexuality. After spending many years destitute and drunk, Cheever’s short stories found a home with the New Yorker, catapulting the writer to stardom. In an effort to deny his gay nature, he married Mary Winternitz and together had three children. But as Cheever’s star grew bigger, so did his insecurity. Never violent, Cheever wreaked emotional havoc on his wife and kids and spent so much time drinking that he nearly killed himself with alcohol. In the final years of his life, Cheever managed to clean up and write his beloved novel Falconer before succumbing to cancer at the age of 70.
Yet, Bailey manages to present Cheever, foibles and all, as a human above all else. Bailey does not let Cheever off the hook for his behavior, presenting many of the author’s sad, sexual exploits and emotional torment of his family in full detail. Not everything in Cheever is salacious, however. Bailey employs keen literary analysis alongside excerpts of Cheever’s best known work like “The Swimmer.” By the time we arrive at Cheever’s deathbed, the author shriveled and wracked with cancer, we feel we have gone through an entire life with this man. Not even the best fiction can achieve this sort of empathy for its protagonists. Beneath that dry Yankee veneer hides a lost little boy looking for love and acceptance. Bailey never allows us to forget it.
by David Harris