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Jonathan Yardley

Jonathan Yardley reviews Blake Bailey's biography of John Cheever.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

CHEEVER: A Life

By Blake Bailey

This Story

Knopf. 770 pp. $35

Two decades ago, reviewing Scott Donaldson's "John Cheever: A Biography" for The Post, I commented favorably on the author's "careful and honorable job" but complained that, at 416 pages of text and apparatus, the book told us far more than we needed to know about Cheever's life. What, then, is to be said of Blake Bailey's "Cheever"? It weighs in at a stupefying 679 pages of text plus 89 pages of acknowledgments, notes and index, 770 pages in all, making for a vast inert pudding of a book that leaves the reader with a severe case of indigestion.

Who knows what Cheever would have thought of this? On the one hand, he was a vain man for whom even the most lavish praise was insufficient, so perhaps it would have pleased him that he rates so bloated a text. On the other hand, the best of his own writing was done in short stories, and the best of those are notable for their economy and precision. Surely he would be astonished to see himself inflated into yet another biographical Gargantua, not to mention in a book that feeds rapaciously on his most unattractive if not repellent aspects: his obsessive, divided sexuality, his spectacular alcoholism, his failures as husband and father.

Cheever was a wonderful writer -- the Library of America has just given him his due with two volumes -- but not, it seems, a very nice man. He was born in 1912 in the Boston suburb of Quincy to shabby genteel parents who left him with a sense of WASP entitlement. His mother ran a "cluttered gift shop" that seems to have interested her more than her two sons did. The household was, in Bailey's words, "crushingly miserable," from which John emerged pitiably vulnerable, deeply sentimental, wholly self-absorbed and astonishingly arrogant. He showed talent for writing at an early age and determined to make it his life's work, though only in his later years (he died in 1982) was he able to make more than a marginal living from it.

The themes of his fiction were, as he once wrote in his journal, "Valor, Love, Virtue, Compassion, Splendor, Kindness, Wisdom, Beauty, Vigor!" Bailey says, correctly, that "really it was the heart alone that interested Cheever." In the best of his short stories he explored these themes and subjects with sensitivity and understanding. He wrote about American middle- and upper-middle-class domestic life as tellingly as anyone ever has, and "The Stories of John Cheever" (1978), though it includes some weak work from his later years, is one of American literature's essential volumes. His great subject was the suburbs, where he found restlessness, uncertainty and discontent beneath the veneer of cocktails, country clubs and bright green lawns.

Bailey knows Cheever's fiction thoroughly and writes about it well, but readers are less likely to be drawn to this book for what it tells us about Cheever the writer than for its all-too-intimate disclosures about Cheever the man. Bailey's intention seems to be to show how art transcends and improves upon life, but the result is a biography that constantly teeters at the edge of sensation and voyeurism.

That the book received what appears to have been the enthusiastic cooperation of Cheever's family is inexplicable given its tone and disclosures. This leaves readers wondering whether the family actually wanted the faults of Cheever père exposed to the full glare of daylight. There was plenty of that in Donaldson's biography, but in Bailey's it overwhelms everything else, the writing included. This is the chronicle of a man who was obsessed with sex and who drank "murderously," and it positively drips with detail about both.

On the first subject, it appears that although Cheever was aware of his bisexuality as a very young man, through most of his adult life he maintained a heterosexual front. As he grew older and as society's attitudes about sex began to relax, his homosexual side became more overt; the composer Ned Rorem, with whom he had occasional encounters, said that Cheever "was obsessed with homosexuality, as though hoarding lost time." Probably, the truth was that he was so needy, physically and emotionally, that he would settle for whatever warmth he could get.

He was a spectacularly heavy drinker. By the late 1940s, at least one acquaintance had him pegged as an alcoholic, by the 1960s he was frequently drunk most of the day. In the mid-1970s he finally got off the sauce; he "suddenly looked and felt twenty years younger." The damage had been done, however; he continued to write but with sorry results by comparison with his best work from the 1940s and 1950s.

No doubt it is important to an understanding of Cheever the man that he was sexually promiscuous and a fall-down drunk, and perhaps it tells us a bit about Cheever the writer as well, but it is one thing for the biographer to reach an understanding of these matters and quite another simply to record, over and over and over again, their quotidian details. Cheever interests us not because of who he was but because of what he wrote. Obviously, it is no coincidence that his writing declined as his drinking intensified, and thus the question of alcoholism must be dealt with. Since homosexuality figures in his novel "Falconer" (1977), a discussion of Cheever's own sexuality is also in order. But Bailey, having been granted full access to everything by Cheever's family and having interviewed zillions of people, cannot let go of his research and puts every detail, however trivial or squalid, into his narrative.

Readers who savor literary gossip may think that all this stuff makes "Cheever: A Life" a juicy romp, but caveat lector: It doesn't. It's as messy as the life it describes.

yardleyj@washpost.com


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