Author John Cheever Found Safe Harbor in His Imagination

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

The land of John Cheever lies in the suburbs of another time. It's a world of well-scrubbed children skipping on manicured lawns. The men in their Brooks Brothers suits catch commuter trains and make appearances at cocktail parties with their perfumed women. They swim outdoors in the sweet summertime. They swat at tennis balls.

Cheever's literary reputation was based on his short stories -- "The Enormous Radio," "The Summer Farmer," "The Swimmer" -- set in the suburban enclaves of the Eastern Seaboard in the 1950s. But Cheever's personal life -- like his stories -- had peculiar traps and hidden pain. There was infidelity, heartbreak, alcoholism, a roiling and constant sexual identity crisis, and a profound feeling of insecurity.

"Cheever's comfort zone was his imagination, this alternative universe where his fiction came from," says Blake Bailey, author of the just-published biography "Cheever: A Life," who will give a reading tonight at Politics and Prose in Northwest Washington. "When the morning was over, when he had finished his writing, he had to enter the real world. And that was frightening to him. He lived with the terror that he thought his children would discover his sexual life. He felt like an impostor. He despised himself. And it was assuaged only by the next drink."

In the decade after Cheever's death in 1982, an avalanche of words came tumbling out: a memoir by his daughter, Susan ("Home Before Dark"), a biography by Scott Donaldson that upset his children, and the publication of a portion of Cheever's own journals and letters that opened anew the writer's bisexuality, dark moods and battles with the bottle.

The acclaimed writer's work stood to be overwhelmed by the publicized demons.

In time, John Cheever's three children came to desire another biographical look at their father. They contacted Bailey, who struck them as uniquely qualified: He had written a biography of Richard Yates, another American writer who came out of the 1950s swimming in a sea of gin and brilliance.

* * *

Born in 1912 in Quincy, Mass., John Cheever was already up against the odds. "He really came from this ruined family," Bailey says, noting the heavy drinking by Cheever's father, Frederick. Cheever's brother also was scarred by battles with the bottle.

By the mid-1930s, Cheever began breaking into respected magazines such as Collier's, the New Republic and, eventually, the New Yorker. His first short story collection, "The Way Some People Live," was published in 1943. His style was clean and elegant; his characters lit by life and tormented by slights and misfortune, their geographical terrain the "safety" of the suburbs. His writing sensibility was gentler than Hemingway's, less romantic than Fitzgerald's. Some critics saw the influence of Chekhov.

But his torment was always near.

"The paranoia he lived with daily was titanic," says Bailey. "He personally disliked homosexuals. Well, he hated effeminate gay men. He thought they were revolting."

Cheever could gulp hard liquor until the late evening and beyond when the mood hit him. There were blackouts and days of the week he totally forgot.

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