John Cheever, the Bard of the Suburbs

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 19, 1988

It is six years since John Cheever's death, which is to say long enough for the literary/academic industry to have explored his corpus with all due thoroughness. Now, in 1988, we are to have the results: a volume of previously uncollected short stories and a large selection of letters, both to be published in the fall, and Scott Donaldson's account of Cheever's life, the first full biography of the author. It is a thorough and solid book, one that tells all we need to know about Cheever the man -- if not indeed rather more -- but that sheds less light than one might hope for on Cheever the artist, perhaps because such light can only be found in the work itself.

Donaldson is the author of two previous biographies: By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway, and Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald. What distinguishes them is that Donaldson eschews the laborious compilation of biographical fact and concentrates instead on interpretations of the lives and works; one may agree or disagree with these explications yet still admire Donaldson for his refusal to capitulate to the cult of bigness that prevails among academic biographers.

In writing those books, though, he had the luxury of knowing that the raw facts had already been put on the record by previous biographers; as author of the first major Cheever biography he seems to feel obliged to perform this function himself, with the result that John Cheever: A Biography is a more dutiful and less imaginative work than Donaldson might have been expected to produce. Having done a great deal of original research, and done it conscientiously, he seems incapable of letting it go; thus he sets down a large amount of material that, though perhaps of passing interest, tells us far less than he thinks.

A case in point is the story of Cheever's ancestry. The point Donaldson seeks to make is that Cheever romanticized and fictionalized that ancestry into something far grander than in truth it was, and the matter certainly is pertinent, especially to the two Wapshot novels. But having learned so much himself about Cheever's forebears, Donaldson cannot abide the thought of letting this knowledge go undisseminated; the result is that what should have been a digression covering two pages becomes an opening chapter of ten.

The problem recurs again and again. Donaldson has read everything and talked to everyone, and as a result has accumulated a great mass of what passes for information: about Cheever's drinking, his love affairs, his bisexuality, his domiciles, his family life, his career. All of this he passes along, not precisely ill-digested but insufficiently sifted and selected; there is more of it than we need in order to reach an understanding of John Cheever, with the result that at last it clutters the picture to an unnecessary extent.

More's the pity because when Donaldson digs out from under the facts and contemplates the deeper questions to which they direct his attention, he is smart and perceptive. He sees Cheever as a divided and conflicted man, torn between "dual impulses toward freedom and confinement, license and law, nature and civilization," and he leaves no doubt that these conflicts were the raw material out of which the writer's art was fashioned. If Cheever was, as is often said of him, the great chronicler of postwar suburban life, then in large measure it was because what he himself "wanted out of life was what most middle-class Americans wanted: a comfortable and fulfilling life for themselves and the best possible opportunities for their children." But Donaldson knows there was more to it than that: "A conventional life imposed restrictions, and even as he forged his bonds he was driven to loosen or untie them."

It is precisely this conflict between desire and distance that gives Cheever's best writing its tension and its ethereal quality. In a story such as "The Country Husband," which Donaldson correctly recognizes as Cheever's masterpiece, the surface of suburban reality becomes a springboard from which Cheever leaps into the fantastic and the unknown, exploring the innermost heart of a husband and father who feels himself at once chained and liberated by his narrow, comfortable life.

Donaldson is also smart about Cheever's relationship with The New Yorker, which published him so frequently that he became, in many minds, the embodiment of the "New Yorker writer." To an extent that was true, inasmuch as his prose was smooth and his setting the same as that inhabited by the magazine's affluent readers, but Cheever rose well above The New Yorker even as he appeared in it; his were not mere stories of manners, but fables of modern life and lamentations about "its pervasive materialism and weakening ethical standards, its standardized and cheapened mass culture, above all its excessive mobility and rootlessness." There was to Cheever, as became clear to the literary community with the publication of his collected stories in 1978, far more than at first met the eye.

In that regard, I do wish that Donaldson was rather more selective in his judgment of Cheever's work. He accepts without question the ecstatic reception accorded to the two late novels, Bullet Park and Falconer, both of which will be forgotten even as the best of the stories are still read, and he pays scant attention to the decline in those stories that accompanied Cheever's increasing candor about sexual matters; by and large the stories of Cheever's Playboy period are self-indulgent and disappointing, yet Donaldson gives them scarcely a nod.

Still, he has done a careful and honorable job. He presents us with a troubled but decent man who worked diligently at his craft, in so doing elevating that craft to art, and who was for the most part a faithful and loyal friend. Cheever seems to have been an honorable man, a rarer distinction among writers of fiction than one might wish to be the case.

What is certain is that his readers loved him, through loving his work; and the story of his productive if largely uneventful life reminds us that in the end it is the work, and it alone, that matters.

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