In the waning days of his life, battling terminal cancer, John Cheever wrote in his diary, “For the first time in forty years I have failed to keep this journal with any care. I am sick. That seems to be my only message.” Candor is too soft a word to describe the cringing vulnerability with which Cheever reveals himself in his voluminous journals as a mostly grief-stricken, lonely, alcoholic homophobe and bisexual, with painful doubts about his work and his worthiness as a father and husband. The fact that his own children learned of his sexual proclivities posthumously (as did most of his closest friends) is a testament to the strength of the jocular tweed-and-gin persona he was at pains to maintain, even in his own household.
With that in mind, the arrival of the new Cheever: A Life raises the question “What don’t we already know?” Blake Bailey’s exemplary 2003 biography A Tragic Honesty: The Life And Work Of Richard Yates more than recommends him as a chronicler of Cheever’s life. And what Bailey has done with his book isn’t a matter of unearthing fresh revelations, but of finally giving “the American Chekhov” the long-overdue definitive examination of an impartial observer, free from the self-loathing (and self-deception) of Cheever’s own Journals.
The book follows Cheever through cold mornings, as he shakes off ghastly hangovers and bangs out stories for The New Yorker,as much to make art as to pay the rent. There’s his decades-long struggle to fashion a novel (The Wapshot Chronicle) and free himself from the stigma of being “just” a story writer; eventually, he “loses” that battle at the height of his fame in 1979, by winning the Pulitzer Prize for the omnibus collection The Stories Of John Cheever. Through it all, Bailey documents Cheever’s lingering cafard—the ever-present melancholia most often surrounding the shame of his sexual ambiguities. At his core, Cheever was a self-centered man who didn’t like himself, a conundrum that could never be resolved. So he wrote. And the compulsion to write, as he once said, came from “the need to make sense of one’s life.” Bailey has brought that life into such eloquent relief that it’s easy to imagine Cheever, if only for a moment, finally feeling like someone understood him.