Tuesday, July 14, 2009

When Everyone Wore a Hat

Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey. Knopf. 770 pages. $35.00
Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings. The Library of America. 1,040 pages. $35.00
Cheever: Complete Novels. The Library of America. 933 pages. $35.00

In a series of short stories, most of them published in The New Yorker from the 1940s through the 1970s, John Cheever examined the the lives and hopes of American domestic life, postwar commuter class division. They were set in and around the `burbs, where husbands took the train to work, wives stayed home, everybody smoked three packs a day, and everyone got drunk at the Saturday dance at the club. The characters are, generally, residents of the upper middle class who have sacrificed everything for the good life, and then find themselves trapped in it: public successes and private failures, alcoholics, adulterers, people who feel their lives slipping away and who yearn, comically and tragically, for time that is lost for good.

Classic American fiction, but not everyone noticed. Critics made worthless comparisons to Salinger, found Cheever a "toothless Thurber," a "culture-hero to the barbecue and Volkswagen set," or "coy and cloying." New Yorker editor Harold Ross, despite the fact that he published Cheever, wished he would follow the house rules, and stick to the lighter side. ("Goddammit, Cheever, why do you write these fucking gloomy goddamn stories?")

Although the criticisms never really let up, Cheever had the last laugh, or so it seemed. When he died in 1982, he went out on top, thanks to the late career resurgence of his acclaimed novel Falconer and, particularly, the best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning Collected Stories. With his beaming smile and attractive blazer, the man on the book jacket looked like everyone's favorite uncle, and the books seemed a testament to the longevity of patient craft. He was an old-school tortoise who had calmly beaten out so many strutting post-modernist hares. ("All writing is `experimental,'" he once told a student, the future novelist T.C. Boyle. "Don’t get caught up in fads.")

His fall from grace was swift. No sooner was Cheever buried than his private life came crawling from the ground, in his daughter Susan’s memoirs, Home Before Dark and Treetops, Scott Donaldson’s erratic but revealing biography, and the author’s own graphic-to-the-point-of-repulsive letters and excerpted journals. Cheever went from being an elegant scribe of the torments and hypocrisies of grasping American life to a glaring symbol of it: a raging alcoholic, closeted bisexual and, like so many of his characters, a man who tried and failed to negotiate some balance between his public and private selves. In the 1990s, he even became a punch-line on "Seinfeld" leaving the world to wonder if that was his final legacy.

Does anyone read John Cheever anymore?

These two beautiful new volumes from the Library of America, published in concert with Blake Bailey's long-awaited biography, make an excellent case for this fucking gloomy goddamn writer of stories. Cheever, who yearned for success as a novelist above all, said a novel was "massive, longlived" while a short story "has the life expectancy of a mayfly." The exact opposite is true in his case. The short story was his true means of expression; a point only reinforced by such novels as the engaging but episodic The Wapshot Chronicle or the beautiful but incomprehensible Bullet Park.

The stories are miraculously old and new. They’re set, as the author himself once noted, in a "long lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat." Despite that, there’s a freshness to them; from the ones that work brilliantly to ones that don’t work at all, Cheever’s always trying to tell a story a new way, adopting an odd or sometimes deceptive perspective, or taking a startling approach.

Take for example, the first entry in Collected Stories, "Goodbye, My Brother," one of Cheever's earliest masterpieces (although not as early as it's placement suggests; Bailey points out that Cheever and editor Robert Giroux rigged the chronology to make it appear Cheever blossomed before he actually did.)

Set in a familiar Cheever environment, a semi-annual family reunion at a waterfront family home, it's a story about one man's struggle with his wet blanket younger brother, who won't participate in family activities, regards everyone with chilly contempt and may be something of a manic-depressive.

That, however, is just the surface, which Cheever thickens considerably, by giving us an unnamed narrator we're inclined to like, much as we are someone like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, with whom he bears a resemblance. Both have the kind of mature skepticism toward privilege and family honor that suggests he's playing straight with us.

He is a Pommeroy, he says, and "while we are not a distinguished family, we enjoy the illusion, when we are together, that we are unique." They aren't unique, he continues, but they are loyal.

It's this sense of loyalty that Lawrence, his younger brother, seems to threaten, not because he's the bad guy but because the narrator simply keeps insisting he is. He's a projection of the narrator's worst fears, and a near constant reminder of what all he doesn't want to face.

Cheever's best stories compress whole lives and worlds into a few pages, such as "The Five Forty-Eight," where we get an acute picture both of an odious employer, who will be forced at gunpoint to pay for his sins, as well as the urban life which has squeezed out his humanity. Another sterling example, wit an opposite environment, is "The Country Husband," whose title character is a family man suffering both from the onset of middle-age and the claustrophobic mores of his community. It's the texture of his very routine neighborhood that Cheever is really after, though; the unusual details as well as the ordinary but funny ones, like the wandering child who never goes home or the dog who steals steaks from outdoor grills, all of which are ultimately woven into a truly magical ending.

Best of all perhaps is "The Swimmer," a real and surreal tale in which a former golden boy swims his way home by way of every pool in the neighborhood. The trip, over the course of a mere 11 pages, takes him through his past and right up to the doorstep, literally, of his disastrous present.

Blake Bailey was given full access to Cheever’s journals, which cover the whole of his writing life. His biography is balanced, judicious, smart, extremely well-written, likely definitive, and sometimes tough to sit through.

On the plus side, they reveal a very hard worker, a man who sought to live entirely by his imagination, and who slaved over his word; even a bad story, in one instance, took nine months.

The biography reveals a man both kind and terribly needy -- for fame, attention, alcohol, and sex -- who stayed soused for most of his life and hit on everyone from his teenage son’s girlfriend to students in his writing classes. There's even a predatory, sex-for-advice relationship with a pathetic, untalented young man that seems to come straight out of a Fassbinder film.

Also, he takes off his clothes at a moment’s notice. (The Index entry, "John Cheever, naked in less than private situations" lists seven references, which seems to be understating the matter.) There are times in his marriage battles when I found myself inclined to take his side against his icy, affectionless wife; then again, any husband who sits at the family dinner table and brags about who he’s screwing probably gets what he deserves.

It must be said that Bailey never aims for sensationalism, that nothing is revealed without a sense of perspective or judiciousness or a duty to the truth, and that he’s a very original reader of Cheever’s fiction. He gives Cheever his full measure, and Cheever, both as writer and exhibitionist, could not have asked for better.

But this is, also, another compelling example that it’s best not to know much about people you admire. Read the biography, but please, read the stories first.

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