Betray the dead father?
Drag the decorous eminence of John Cheever through the smut-wallows of gossip, the voyeuristic sumps of public derision? Or buy silence for his secrets by suppressing the rest of his story? And which is the greater betrayal?
It's a dilemma to rack the most obdurate of historians, much less the daughter of the venerable novelist who died of cancer in 1982. Susan Cheever's solution -- 50,000 copies of which are arriving at bookstores this week -- is a frank but frankly loving biographical memoir, "Home Before Dark."
Yet writing it, she says, "was just about the last thing I wanted to do." Especially after reading, to growing shock, the 30 volumes of private journals he left behind. "I learned a lot of things I hadn't known before -- how different life was for my father than we had imagined, how the humor he used was just transmuted pain, what alcoholism is, and of course the homosexuality." Her voice drops to a husky murmur on the last word and dissolves into the pleated-Naugahyde hush of this Upper East Side lounge.
Her first impulse was "to abandon the book. I said, 'I don't want to be the one who tells this stuff to the world.' " Yet "I knew that articles and a biography were going to be written. And I decided it'd be better if I presented these things myself, in context. So that if some sleazy person wanted to reveal this later, it wouldn't be news."
Moreover, "I was proud of my independence from him. And I didn't want to be known as his daughter particularly -- especially not as his biographer." Not an unreasonable desire for a 41-year-old journalist and author of three novels who bears the perils of the Cheever name (the suspicion of favoritism, the threat of implied comparison), but is trapped for life inside her father's very face.
A dead ringer, obvious even in the barroom murk of this back-corner banquette. The face that peers up anxiously from a cup of mint tea has the same puckered squint in the eyes, the same prominent cheekbones, the same mournful set to the wide mouth.
She says she doesn't see it. Others always do. In a restaurant recently, she brushed past John Irving, who did a horrified double take. "He said, 'My God, I turned around and saw your father!' "
No wonder, then, that the memoir "was not something I decided to do -- it just sort of happened to me."
Not that you'd know it from the poise and power of "Home Before Dark."
Drawing on her memories, the journals and the recollections of her father's friends and family, Cheever reveals a very complicated man in whom atavistic values warred with apostate eccentricity and a mannerly humility alternated with preening vanity. (At times he was "his own number one groupie," as his daughter puts it.) All masking a soul compounded of chronic melancholy, anguish at his decay, and lifelong yearning for ideal love, for an enfolding and transcendent contentment he was rarely, if ever, to feel despite numerous lovers of both genders.
The last preoccupation -- though rarely explicit until his last novels, "Falconer" and "Oh What a Paradise It Seems" -- found its thematic counterpart in his familiar elegiac tone: the wistful longing for a prelapsarian bliss that to John Cheever still glimmered maddeningly just beyond the Formica inanity and petty cruelties of middle-class life. Just as a dream of immortal achievement beckoned to him across a psyche besotted by the two Valiums and pint of gin he would consume before noon.
He quit drinking in the mid-'70s; and his family's reaction to that and other travails gives "Home Before Dark" a texture beyond mere biography. Inevitably, Susan Cheever explains, "it is also a book about what it was like to be his daughter. But I tried to keep the focus on him." The result is an anecdotal catalogue of his crises and triumphs. It follows the first 20 years of supporting a wife and children on short stories before he was able to write a novel. (And even then, Random House declared "The Wapshot Chronicle" a flop: too flawed to publish unless radically rewritten. Cheever refused, but the book was rescued by an admiring editor from what was then Harper & Bros. Published in 1957, it won the National Book Award.) And the narrative includes his notorious falling-out with The New Yorker, his winning of nearly every important literary award, his cycles of wealth and poverty, his agony over the critical reception of his 1969 novel, "Bullet Park," and more.
In short, everything his daughter hadn't wanted to describe.
"I was supposed to be writing a novel, but when I found out that my father was sick, I stopped working on it. Also, I was four months pregnant with a daughter, Sarah , which didn't help." As her father grew progressively worse, "I started writing about him as therapy, just to make myself feel better. About a month before he died, I stepped that up, and found that I was writing a lot about my past." After the funeral, the Cheevers convened at the family retreat in New Hampshire, and she again began work on the novel. "But every time I rolled a sheet of paper into the typewriter, it came out about Daddy."
Yielding to the obsession ("the two books I used as my permission to write this are 'Exiles' and 'Haywire' "), she told her agent that "I might possibly be doing something about my father" and started composing in earnest. "I had first conceived it as a slim little memoir, and didn't foresee the problems I'd have." One was the need for outside sources, even genealogical research. "I found a lot of versions of the stories he told, and felt I'd have to provide the reader a version of the actual facts." Though John Cheever was a deft lampooner of middle-class pretensions, he was also a covert snob who would embellish his history with invented elements if they made the tales sound better, and even conjured up a distinguished Yankee ancestry that was never his. ("I have improvised a background for myself -- genteel, traditional -- and it is generally accepted," he wrote in a journal entry).
That background is permanently enshrined in "The Wapshot Chronicle," about two brothers (like John and his brother Fred) who flee the sad life of their aristocratic, long-suffering father and his domineering wife. In fact, John Cheever's father was a highly literate businessman who lost everything in the crash of '29, turned to booze and self-pity and was humiliated when his wife opened a tearoom and gift shop. The couple separated and reunited. But the marriage degenerated into vitriolic snarling and "when his mother found out that she was pregnant with John , his father had tried to force her to have an abortion," their granddaughter writes.
John Cheever remained married to the same woman for 40 years, though their relationship ricocheted between mawkish affection and brutal sarcasm -- the latter often preponderating, thanks to his volatile and abrasive nature: "My daughter says our dinner table is like a shark tank," he wrote in his journal. ". . . Scotch for breakfast and I do not like these mornings."
"My father created a very tense, charged and thrilling atmosphere," Susan Cheever says now. "You wanted to be there, even though you might leave in tears."
Yet as well as she knew him, the journals were a revelation. She had skimmed the entries, and thought, "Since I'm going to mention them, it'd be nice to have a few quotes." She began by browsing, but was soon mesmerized and read through the entire 30 volumes. "I was amazed at their intimacy." Especially at their discussion of the homosexuality he practiced -- despite excruciating self-contempt -- late in life. In 1977, when Susan Cheever, then a Newsweek staffer, interviewed her father for the magazine, she had asked him the question directly. "I have had many happy homosexual relationships," he replied then, "all between the ages of 9 and 12."
That was good enough for her. "My brothers and my mother were a little more acute than I was." In retrospect, she now attributes to "sexual confusion" her father's oddly cranky persecution of every boyfriend she brought home while an undergraduate at Brown. "My father was a man of intense and polymorphous appetites that caused him tremendous guilt and self-loathing."
The journals are often sodden with remorse. ("Have you heard," he imagined the gossips saying in one passage, "Old Cheever, crowding seventy, has gone Gay. Old Cheever has come out of the closet.") And yet, writes his daughter, his long relationship with the man whose name is changed to "Rip" in the book was "as sweet and satisfying a source of love as love could be for him."
"When I think about it," she says now, "it fits in perfectly with the rest of his work," with the quixotic craving for a pure Edenic succor so different from the fallen home life of his childhood, which he escaped in 1930. Then a prep school junior, he fled to New York; his first story was published in The New Republic the same year.
His wife is not quoted in the memoir, remaining aloof from the narrative even when topics such as domestic rancor or the author's lovers seem to demand her reaction. "I tried to leave her out," Cheever says of her mother, "to respect her privacy. She's got her own life to lead and stories to tell." If that omission makes her seem the villain, "I worried about that. And she has said that she can imagine a more flattering portrait of herself. Still, she very much wants my father's story told." There is scarcely more reaction from her brothers. "He was a different father for each of us," she says, "and I had to write the one I knew, had to leave it so that they could write their own books if they wanted to."
There's still ample material, she says, especially about the ego travails of celebrity offspring. To wit: In 1979, her brother Benjamin had braved the Boston Marathon and run it in spectacular time. The family was elated. So was Ben when he returned to his hotel to find his message box overflowing with press queries. More were pinned to the door of his room. Then he discovered the reason: His father had just won the Pulitzer Prize.
"But that's Benjy's story," she says. "You see what I mean?"
It was "intensely difficult" for Susan Cheever -- bracketed in age between brothers Benjamin and Federico -- to create an identity outside the orbit of her father's reputation. That's why "at the age of 17 I decided I wouldn't be a writer no matter what." The promise soon proved vain. After a spell as an English teacher, she took a job at a small newspaper and eventually found herself at Newsweek, serving variously as a writer and as editor of the religion and life style sections. She even married into a literary line: Her first husband, Rob Cowley (now an editor at Random House) is the grandson of legendary writer-critic Malcolm Cowley, one of John Cheever's earliest mentors.
Still, "I didn't start writing fiction until I was 35" and had been at Newsweek five years. "Everyone there wants to write a novel, and for a long time I thought it was just a normal occupational hazard." But the urge pestered her until "really what I wanted to do was go somewhere and write without being edited and published -- to just let it run." What ran was "Looking for Work," a largely autobiographical story published in 1980 to respectable reviews and a modest profit.
She worried often about "being taken for myself or getting special privileges" as the daughter of a literary icon. Her father, she recalls, was cool at first toward her writing career. "He was worried for me. His life was really tough," especially in income, and "he thought the best way for me was to marry somebody rich and settle down." Characteristically, when her first novel was published, "he was thrilled when it made money."
That perennial family nemesis remains a critical issue for Susan Cheever, as for most full-time writers. There's the overhead on the Central Park West home she shares with her second husband, New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins, and the rent for her old bachelor apartment on East 74th, which she now uses as an office. And after only modest successes with her second and third novels ("A Handsome Man" in 1981, "The Cage" in 1982), she needs a new project immediately.
But she's now uncertain about the novel she was writing at her father's death, and she's exhausted ("I was thinking of going to law school to get a rest -- seriously!" but her friend attorney-author Renata Adler advised against it) after the memoir ordeal, which included a last-minute hardware catastrophe. She will use only one model of typewriter -- the old Olivetti metal-case portables made in Spain, "not the ones they made later in Mexico" -- and keeps seven of them around for reassurance. "But they all broke at once when I was doing the final manuscript."
Besides, "I feel as though everything I know is in this book, and right now I don't have the material to do fiction, though I certainly intend to eventually." So she's working on a book about what happens to doctors who treat cancer patients. And worrying nonstop about the memoir.
"I was very anxious about it being well received for the wrong reasons" -- namely the few lurid episodes in an otherwise gracious narrative. "I don't know," she muses, her eyes (her father's eyes) puff-crinkling in concentration. "You hate to say you're disturbed by the commercial value of a book." And yet . . .
She rises, crosses the empty lounge, more subdued now than when she came in. As the door opens, strong daylight explodes in the censorious glare familiar to afternoon bar denizens. On the street, she finishes the thought. "A couple of people," she says softly, dropping her face to the sidewalk litter, "have said to me, 'Is this some kind of revenge book?' "
Not that anything can tarnish her father's luster. "No, he's untouchable," she says, pausing before turning the corner toward her office and the ineludible keyboard. "It's me I'm worried about."