John Cheever, 70, whose wry, witty, morally charged novels and short stories transcended the confines of their suburban subject matter to win broad critical and popular acclaim, died last night at his home in Ossining N.Y.
He had suffered from cancer for some time and underwent surgery for a cancerous kidney last summer.
During a long and prolific career that saw him published at the age of 17, Mr. Cheever set down his penetrating and often astringent and troubling observations on American life in five novels and more than 120 short stories, and earned virtually every American literary award.
The trim and quiet-spoken author, who showed the public reserve of his New England forebears, seemed determined to follow his own artistic path tenaciously and uncompromisingly. Yet, he saw his works adapted for movies and television, and climb onto the best-seller lists.
Although sophisticated and understated, his treatment of the often tormented lives of his fictional characters clearly displayed his own commitment to such values and virtues as patience, courage and endurance. In many ways, the course of his own life appeared to represent a triumph of those values.
In the 1970s, he overcame both alcoholism and a heart attack to publish "Falconer," a highly praised novel that reached the best-seller lists, broke new ground in its subject matter, and opened a period in which he reached new heights of accomplishment and admiration.
"Falconer," a grimly fantastic story of prison life, blending myth and reality, darkness and ultimate light and grace, was published in 1973. Six years later a collection of his short fiction appeared under the title "The Stories of John Cheever."
To the National Book Award that Mr. Cheever had won with "The Wapshot Chronicle," his first novel published in 1957, he added the Pulitzer Prize, which he won for the story collection.
His most recent novel, "Oh What a Paradise it Seems," described as a charming fable of old age, nostalgia and loss, was published this year, shortly before his 70th birthday, which came on May 27.
"I write to make sense of my life," Mr. Cheever once said, and indeed, even on a superficial level, many similarities and connections may be discovered between his life and his work. The man who saw dozens of his carefully crafted fables of life in the WASP suburbs north of New York, was born in Quincy, Mass., to parents who, in what he referred to as those "Athenian twilight years," would entertain themselves and him by reading aloud.
Mr. Cheever, who began to write his own stories by the age of 10, was sent to Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., where, he later recalled, he was a "quarrelsome, intractable. . .and lousy student."
Expulsion at the age of 16 for sins that he said included sloth and smoking, marked the end of his formal education. It also marked the start of his literary career. Converting his experience into fiction, he sent a short story called "Expelled" to The New Republic, and at the age of 17 saw it published.
His parents, he once said, speaking in the sternly ascetic Puritan voice of New England, consented to the idea that he should become a writer, with one important qualification: "So long as you don't pursue fame or wealth."
Under such strictures he went to New York, where in the 1930s he appeared to have little difficulty in heeding the admonition, particularly as far as money was concerned.
He lived on an income from odd jobs, a stipend from Barnard College, where self-educated through omnivorous reading, he was hired to teach advanced composition, and on the checks that came from the editors of the magazines that printed his stories--The New Republic, Collier's, Story, the Atlantic, and in particular, The New Yorker.
A hallmark of Mr. Cheever's fiction, with its forlornly poetic evocations of the tribulations and malaises of the affluent and genteel, was its apparent immunity to the tide of social protest surging through much American fiction of the '30s.
His first collection of stories, "The Way Some People Live," appeared in 1943, during his four years of Army service in World War II.
His Army service, he said later, he explored but little in his work. "My feeling was, when I found myself in the particular chaos of the infantry, that there must be deeper, richer strata to life," he said.
With the war ended, he returned to mining them, in New York. There, early in his marriage, his routine was to dress in a suit each morning and ride down in the elevator with other residents of his East Side building, who were headed for their offices. But he continued to the basement, took off the suit and went to work in his shorts, at his typewriter, in a windowless storage space.
More short stories appeared, including "The Enormous Radio" ("better, shinier, wilder," in one critic's words). His reputation solidified and prizes came his way.
In 1957 came "The Wapshot Chronicle," set in St. Botolphs, a fictional town suggested by his real birthplace. "I didn't even attempt to write a novel until I had enjoyed a sustained experience, a sustained emotional life, which I didn't have until I was middle-aged," he once said.
"The Wapshot Chronicle" was followed by more stories and "The Wapshot Scandal," described as a visionary and poignant portrayal of the human dilemma.
"Bullet Park," his third novel, was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. "The Swimmer," a short story, became a film.
In 1973 he suffered a heart attack. Then, a longtime drinker, he struck an unhappy period, began drinking more and went into a sanitarium, where, he said, the prospect of death became real.
"It made me realize that. . .anything I could do to continue alive and useful I was quite willing to do," he later said.
"I have not had a drink since," he added in a interview in 1977, the year "Falconer" appeared and was hailed as a personal and literary triumph.
Survivors include his wife, Mary, their three children, Benjamin, Federico and Susan, and two grandchildren.