HOME BEFORE DARK is much more than Susan Cheever's memoir of her famous author father: it is a portrait of the artist as a young man, a middle-aged man, an old man, a sick man. It is, in fact, one of the most moving and intimate books I have read in years.
John Cheever, who died in June 1982, was a creature of his own imagination, his only daughter tells us. The gifts that made him a brilliant short story writer and novelist also created a man who evidently had a loose and ever-changing relationship to reality. "I write to make sense of my life," John Cheever used to say. He advised his daughter to do the same. She has done so as the author of three novels and although she "never intended to become his biographer," she here undertakesto make sense of his life for the rest of us.
Her exercise in family archaeology inevitably unearths pain, beginning with the disintegration of John Cheever's childhood: his father's business failure, his mother's efforts to support the family with a gift shop, the drinking, the divorce, the sale of the family home, above all the lack of affection for an unwanted last child. Psychiatrists were energetic in their efforts to persuade an older, troubled John Cheever, that all his problems stemmed from his relationship with his parents, but Susan, with a perspicacity not shared by the professionals, points out: "He had spent his life escaping the past; he wasn't about to return to it voluntarily."
John Cheever made his way from Wollaston, Massachusetts, to New York City, aged 18, to be a writer of fiction. He stuck to that uncompromising plan for the rest of his life, through first critical success, critical doldrums and, finally, tremendous critical acclaim. He loved to talk to his children about the initial days of poverty: "Every day he bought a bottle of milk and marked it into five portions to make it last." His friend Walker Evans took a picture of his stark little room at 633 Hudson Street, a photograph now in the Museum of Modern Art but reproduced in this book along with a clutch of reassuringly ordinary family snapshots.
His daughter brings alive the years before her arrival as skillfully as she does the period of her own growing up. Her narrative, however, is not strictly chronological but laced with insights from later years or flashbacks to earlier times, a method held together by a sense of peace and the knowledge that all struggles are concluded. She retells both the legends and the reality and it is hard to care which is which. In the early days of their marriage John and Mary Cheever and their young daughter lived in an apartment on East 59th Street. "In the morning when I went to school, my father would put on his one good suit and his gray felt hat and ride down in the elevator with the other men on their way to the office. From the lobby he would walk down to the basement, to the windowless storage room that came with our apartment. That was where he worked. There, he hung up the suit and hat and wrote all morning in his boxer shorts, typing away on his portable Underwood set up on a folding table." The appearance of a regular, respectable life mattered even then.
An odd family these Cheevers. Not wholly likeable or admirable. The parents' marriage was an on-again, off-again affair, either in the emotional tropics or the Arctic. There was so much backbiting and arguing around the family dining table that some guests couldn't stand it. Susan's brothers referred to the table as "the bear garden." But clearly John Cheever cared deeply about his family -- wife Mary, sons Federico and Benjamin, and Susan: "My father loved his children. The three of us were, as he said, 'the roof and settle' of his existence." He liked to see his family gathered together in the big house in Ossining, New York, with its rolling lawns and barking dogs, in appearance a perfect upper-middle-class family. But, looking back, it seems to Susan that in Cheever's life, as in his writing, appearances were what really counted. "We were all told that appearances were not important, but no one believed it for a minute. My father described everything in terms of appearances. . . . It was always my observation that he took pretty women to be sweetnatured, and that he often concluded that plain women were unpleasant or abrasive. He adored Jacqueline Kennedy and hated Jeane Kirkpatrick." This man had clear aspirations for his daughter. "She'll have long blonde hair and drive a sports car and we'll call her Susie," he said, and was predictably angered by an adolescent who was "dumpy, plagued by acne, slumped over, and alternately shy and aggressive," with lank straight brown hair always in her eyes.
But Home Before Dark is no "Daddy Dearest," a child's settling of scores. The wonder of this book is the astonishing combination of dispassion and compassion with which Susan Cheever portrays her father. She recalls affectionately just how he looked: "He had a Yankee face, with bright blue eyes, puffy eyelids, and narrow lips, but his smile was so complete and friendly that it changed his whole expression." Assembling her portrait, Susan uncovers the personality of her father layer by layer -- although her mother remains a somewhat shadowy figure. Having written this book in part to assuage the pain of John Cheever's death, she realizes, "I know my father better than I ever did while he was alive."
She takes the good times with the bad, the rewards enjoyed and the prices paid. The family travels, the family homestead, glow in a loving portrait. From the time she was 13, Susan always talked far into the night with her father. Her schoolwork suffered. "How could my teachers compete with my father's stories, his discussion of books and language?"
The clouds began to gather in the 1960s, just as John Cheever became firmly established as a master of the short story and a successful novelist. But appearances no longer matched reality. They masked a middle-aged man losing himself and his talents to alcohol. "Drink was his crucible, his personal hell," and "by the first years of the l970s, the inevitable first drink of day came sooner and sooner. Eventually it blended with the last drink of the evening." His marriage, always in peril, seemed to be disintegrating. The children were caught in the crossfire. "They both confided at length and in explicit detail to me," Susan grimly remembers, "or anyone else who would sit still long enough to listen. Not only did I wish they wouldn't; I began to wish they would get divorced."
Writing about one's own father fighting alcoholism, regaining fame, becoming "his own number one groupie" and finding young lovers of both sexes is an almost impossible task, but Susan Cheever does it -- with restraint and understanding: "I think it was partly his fear of his own desires that kept my father drinking, and I think his anxiety over his sexual ambivalence also kept him married." She keeps herself in the background most of the time so that when she is on stage the reader has no feeling of exploitation or voyeurism.
It was only after her father's death that Susan recognized the romantic nature of his relationships with his young proteg,es. "I guess what surprised me most was that I hadn't already known." The man she calls "Rip" became almost a part of the family towards the end of her father's life. "It was Rip who really kept my father company during his last illness." There is clear gratitude for the support and peace that Rip brought to her father with not a trace of censure or prurience, although her father was haunted by the idea of public ridicule. He wrotein his journal of his fear that people would gossip, "Have you heard? Old Cheever, crowding seventy, has gone Gay. Old Cheever has come out of the closet. Old Cheever has run off to Bessarabia with a hairy youth half his age." Appearances counted to the end.
Strangely, it doesn't really matter that the subject of this book is one of the great literary names of our times. He could be a politician or a painter or a financier. There will be other books about John Cheever -- doctoral theses, literary biographies, lovers' recollections -- but there will never be another book about John Cheever like this one. No one will love him quite as Susan Cheever does. No one will fear him and fight with him as his daughter has. "How could I love him?" she asks as he lay dying. With this book John Cheever's daughter answers her own question. For better, for worse, she loved him.