Apr/May 2009

Commuter Literate

Behind the carefully constructed persona of suburban squire, John Cheever waged a tumultuous battle against himself—a struggle that only found its way into his very last works of fiction.

Matthew Price


Some writers went on the road; others went to Paris or fought in a war. John Cheever (1912–1982) went to Westchester, New York, where he cultivated his own exclusive patch of the Northeast Corridor. His outward appearance—a bit rumpled, collar frayed, every inch the squire of suburbia—oozed wasp gentility. Cheever did rumpled preppy long before rumpled preppy was cool. Ever the showman, he posed with horses for PR photos, talked in a patrician drawl so thick he made Thurston Howell III seem down-to-earth, lived in a rambling country house, and wrote bittersweet stories set on Manhattan’s East Side and in the commuter towns north of the city. A generous portion of that fiction will endure, even if his rank as a novelist is today uncertain. He took delight in seeming a respectable, churchgoing family man and reveled in being a hearty’s hearty, whether scything grass, chopping wood, playing touch football (a favorite pastime), or diving into icy pools. It all seemed like vigor, pep, and good times.

This image, carefully fixed by Cheever himself, began dissolving with the publication of Falconer (1977), a prison novel of shocking force and lurid sexuality that awed many of his admirers and hinted at some kind of personal liberation. Its rapturous treatment of homoerotic desire and its horrific passages on addiction suggested Cheever was publicly owning up to something—and, in many ways, he was. In 1991, the publication of The Journals of John Cheever laid bare a life of prodigious drinking, infidelity, marital strife, lust, impotence, and agonized bisexuality. “The most wonderful thing about life seems to be that we hardly tap our potential for self-destruction,” mused Cheever, who did his best to refute his own proposition. (Among other things, the Journals are an essential document in the history of alcoholism.) In this private record, Cheever emerges a man beset by a welter of repression, resentments, and infinite reservoirs of despair. (“Shaken with liquor, self-doubts dimmed slightly by a Miltown, I board the nine o’clock. I am in misery. Every man on the train seems richer, more virile and intelligent than I.”) There are bursts of his trademark lyricism, filled with the pleasure he took in observing the natural world—“the smell of burning holly and hemlock is like a vital perfume of life”—but for every small portion of joy, there is a greater share of desolation.

In his hefty biography Cheever: A Life, Blake Bailey brings these disclosures further out of the shadows, training the megawatt glare of the authorized life onto Cheever’s agonies and indiscretions. The prospect we are offered is a bleak one. If Cheever brought a zest and professionalism to the craft of the short story—the New Yorker style owes much to his efforts—he became positively consumed with creating the persona “John Cheever,” a vocation that brought him fame and accolades but very nearly extinguished him. An artist who lived among businessmen, a man who loved men but hated homosexuality, a loving father who found it difficult to discharge the duties of fatherhood, a short-story sprinter who struggled over the long distances required of the novelist, Cheever took out a mortgage on a life he could never repay.

The author of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates (2003), Bailey has become something of a specialist in the lives of alcoholic practitioners of suburban realism, and it’s only fitting he has moved on to one of the founding fathers of the genre (the other being a fellow New Yorker contributor, the much-denigrated John O’Hara). Cheever, however, is a greater writer than Yates and a more complex case. Bailey had access to every bit of Cheeveriana he could locate, including the vastness of the complete journals (only a selection was published in 1991), which run to forty-three hundred pages. The Journals are a masterwork unto themselves and provide a road map to the author’s origins.

Cheever’s ambivalence about his New England Protestant roots tugged at him. He liked to remind his children they were “Cheevahs,” but he wasn’t ever quite sure whether he came from the ruling class or a routed class, and joked he was descended from the “wrong Cheevers.” Growing up on Massachusetts’s South Shore, the young Cheever watched his father, a traveling shoe salesman who’d lost most of his money in the ’20s, go from a “jaunty golf-playing burgher to a sodden failure with a hacking cough who always seemed to be sitting on the porch with nothing to do,” Bailey writes. Cheever was even more ashamed when his proud and stubborn mother opened a gift shop in Quincy. Years later, he wrote of his family that they were “sexual losers, sartorial losers, bums at the bank. Unclean outcasts whose destiny, written in the stars, was to empty garbage pails and pump the shit out of septic tanks but who, through some cultural miscalculation, imagined themselves being carried off the Lacrosse field on the shoulders of their teammates and then dancing with the prettiest girl in the world.”

Cheever wouldn’t end up pumping septic tanks, but the jobbing life of a writer would provide no quick escape from this fate. He left the private Thayer Academy—it isn’t certain whether he was expelled or departed on his own initiative—and, like many writers of the time, ended up in New York in the orbit of the New Republic, where at eighteen he published his first story. A certified bohemian, Cheever circulated in Greenwich Village and got by on a meager income. The New Republic’s literary editor, Malcolm Cowley, brought Cheever along; to his first mentor, he would later write, “You taught me to . . . by-pass the French symbolists, train a retriever with a fresh egg, buy my shoes at Fortnum & Mason, catch a trout and keep my literary sights high and earnest.” Vital lessons for an aspiring member of the gentry, but in the late ’30s, two other editors-about-town, the New Yorker’s Katharine White and William Maxwell, transformed Cheever into a star.

Cheever’s tenure at the New Yorker, which would publish his most famous stories, was the central literary relationship in his career. From the ’30s into the ’60s, the magazine nurtured and enraged him by turns; the fees it paid helped him to buy a house in Ossining (this despite the objections of the magazine’s lawyer, who told Maxwell that “freelance writers should not own property”), but it also rejected scores of stories that were then published elsewhere, which did little to appease Cheever’s feeling that he was always being crowded out by some other New Yorker writer, whether J. D. Salinger (the “Godamned sixth-rate Salinger”), John Updike, or Donald Barthelme (“The stuntiness of Barthelme disconcerts me. . . . Blooey. It’s like the last act in vaudeville and anyhow it seems to me that I did it fifteen years ago”).

With one eye on Cheever’s bank account and the other on his prose, Bailey diligently tracks the author’s editorial and monetary dealings with the magazine. In many ways, Cheever fit right into the publication’s middlebrow cosmopolitanism. He did as much to create the mature New Yorker style as the magazine did to burnish his reputation as a master of the short-story form. An improviser who wrote at speed when so moved—there were long, paralyzing bouts of inactivity—he turned around work quickly. He was gratified to be writing for “estimable men and woman,” and by the mid-’40s, he was on way to becoming an estimable man himselfoutwardly, at least. Cheever never let a lack of funds deter him from his status ambitions; he said good-bye to bohemia and moved with his wife, Mary, and daughter, Susan, to a Sutton Place apartment well beyond their means. There, Cheever began to play a kind of double game. “Almost every morning for the next five years,” Bailey writes, “he’d put on his only suit and ride the elevator with other men leaving for work; Cheever, however, would proceed all the way down to a storage room in the basement, where he’d doff his suit and write in his boxers until noon, then dress again and ascend for lunch.”

Cheever needed such rituals, but he was acutely aware what he was up to. Fussing over the monogram on a towel one evening in 1948, he mused in his journal about “this concern for outward order. . . . I was born into no true class, and it was my decision early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously.” He became a special kind of provincial writer, working the narrow terrain that stretched from Manhattan’s East Side to the small hamlets along the Hudson River. Here, the money was oldish but not grand. The people were comfortable but not posh. His characters had to get out of bed in the morning—they were always running to catch the morning train. They sent their kids to private school, summered on the Cape, and drank way too much, closing out the evening session, which generally began around seven—if it hadn’t already at noon—to the clink of glasses of gin.

Whatever Cheever’s doubts about his place in tony circles, his outsider-as-insider status paid dividends. He wrote about the shabbily genteel milieu with a mixture of pathos, bitterness, nostalgia, and regret. The odd charm of the stories derives from how he mixes these tones. (Not always successfully—he had a smothering way with irony.) He could be wonderfully biting, as when, in “Just One More Time,” he describes “the shoestring aristocrats of the upper East Side—the elegant, charming, and shabby men who work for brokerage houses, and their high-flown wives, with their thrift-shop minks and their ash-can fur pieces, their alligator shoes and their snotty ways with doormen and with the cashiers in supermarkets.”

Much like Cheever himself, these people were precariously perched, in need of money and clutching after some last bit of respectability. “We both come from that enormous stratum of the middle class that is distinguished by its ability to recall better times,” says the narrator of another story, talking about himself and his wife. “Lost money is so much a part of our lives that I am sometimes reminded of expatriates, of a group who have adapted themselves energetically to some alien soil but who are reminded, now and then, of the escarpments of their native coast.” Don’t be distracted by the brightness and energy, and listen for the morbid notes always breaking through the fizz of cocktail-party chatter: “She had known a man like that. He had worked day and night making money. He ruined his partners and betrayed his friends and broke the hearts of his sweet wife and adorable children, and then, after making millions and millions of dollars, he went down to his office one Sunday afternoon and jumped out of the window.”

Cheever held a cracked mirror up to the New Yorker’s affluent readership. But his sociology was delivered in a playful, lilting, almost musical prose: The beginning of “O Youth and Beauty!” (that exclamation point might as well be a dagger)—“At the tag end of nearly every long, large Saturday-night party in the suburb of Shady Hill”—is almost hummable. Even if some critics found the tone irritating—Irving Howe dismissed him as “a toothless Thurber”—he wasn’t a brassy show-off in the manner of Nabokov. There was a politesse to his writing that was appropriate to the venue and, all the better, allowed him to conceal his tricks and gibes.

Cheever didn’t think much of his short stories; he wrote them to bring in money, though he suspected Maxwell was underpaying him. His relationship with his editor would come under strain after he decamped from Manhattan in the early ’50s to the town of Scarborough in Westchester County, where he spent the decade and more observing organization men and their stay-at-home wives. (Interesting fact: Cheever lived in the house once occupied by Yates, which was near a real Revolutionary Road.) Maxwell would steer into print Cheever’s best fictional riffs on his suburban surroundings, among them “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” and “The Five-Forty-Eight,” but Cheever wondered whether he wasn’t floundering, only this time in a more pastoral setting. “Every time I read a review of Saul Bellow I get the heaves. Oh this big, wild, rowdy country, full of whores and prizefighters, and here I am stuck with an old river in the twilight and the deterioration of the middle-aged businessman,” he lamented in his journal circa 1953. (Cheever actually admired Bellow a great deal, and the two struck up an unlikely friendship.)

At the time, Cheever was in the midst of a decade-long struggle to complete his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle, which had plunged him back into his New England past and is now collected along with Cheever’s four other novels in a spiffy Library of America edition, as the short stories are in another. A rambling, picaresque catalog of eccentrics and ham-handed antics, the novel obsessed Cheever as a way of transforming and exorcising his past. Although often strained and artificial sounding, this first effort to break out of the restrictions of his natural form won him a National Book Award in 1958. (For my money, along with the extraordinary Falconer, the critically drubbed Bullet Park [1969], when he went weird and wrote a ’60s novel without really meaning to, showcases the best of Cheever in long form.) Whatever doubts he had about his short fiction, he kept tinkering with the genre he helped perfect—see the 1960 story “Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel” for some spoofing postmodern high jinks, years before such stuff went mainstream—despite the growing exasperation of Maxwell.

Cheever was not happy when “The Swimmer,” today his best-known story, appeared behind an Updike piece in 1964. (“This seems to me unintelligent and perhaps mean, but then one encounters much of both,” he sneered.) Of the Gide-influenced exercise “The Jewels of the Cabots,” Maxwell reportedly commented, “As God is my witness, this is not a story.” By the end of the decade, the fed-up Cheever began shopping his work to Playboy. “They pay well and they are hospitable,” he wrote a friend, “and the tits aren’t any more distracting than the girdle advertisements in the New Yorker.” Cheever, when he had to be, was all business.

The work Bailey put into this huge biography is laudable, but the latter stages of his book are troubling. By its very nature, biography is a voyeuristic form, but Bailey takes the prying to a harrowingly explicit level. (The index even provides an entry for “Cheever, naked in less-than-private situations.”) “He and Mary still tried from time to time [to have sex], but it was no use: at best he could get started a bit, but rarely (if ever) finish,” Bailey writes in a typical bit of close-up detail. No humiliation can pass the eagle eye of this author.

Certainly, Cheever conspired in his own diagnosis, keeping a careful record of ejaculations, sexual fantasies, liaisons, boozing, and bickering. He was as conscientious in documenting his inner life as he was in playing up his wasp bona fides. As a public figure, Cheever had arrived. “I am a Wasp, my God, look,” a journalist quoted him as saying. Time magazine, which put him on its cover in 1964, drooled, “[Cheever] wears Brooks Brothers shirts with their conspicuously missing pockets and would never consider having a mongrel dog.” But it was the ever-sharp Maxwell who perceptively summed it up: “Cheever was not, I think, content merely to be an artist. He wanted a place in society, to lead the life of upper-middle-class people as he saw it (with some idealization, I think). He would have liked to have had lots of money, entertained beautifully, been socially the best there was.” Don Draper, you have nothing on John Cheever.

A spirited talker and compulsive, playful storyteller, Cheever tended to the theatrical, but this performance brought uncertain rewards. “Gin seems to be the only way out,” he noted—he eventually needed bucket loads to get through the day. He told his doctor of his “anxious and greedy urge to take more than my share of brute pleasure.” If he was frequently impotent with his wife, the frisky Cheever took pleasure with other women (there was an affair with a young student and a romp with the actress Hope Lange), his hand (often), and other men (at least a dozen over his life). He tried to contain his homosexual inclinations, but doing so only brought him more emotional derangement. He thrilled to the male body but was terrified of what would it do to him. Homosexuals, he worried, seemed “unserious, humorless and revolting.” In one of the most haunting passages of the Journals, Cheever wrote, “If I followed my instincts I would be strangled by some hairy sailor in a public urinal. Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy, was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.”

For Bailey, Cheever’s dealings with other men always carried latent sexual charge. This is true, up to a point. In the tensions between Maxwell, himself conflicted in his sexuality, and Cheever, Bailey locates a tacit understanding between the two about their unspoken longings. Yet Bailey can push this line of inquiry too far. Of Cheever’s praise for The Adventures of Augie March, Bailey writes, “He might have been less generous if he hadn’t been so smitten with the man; yet I see this as Cheever merely linking up with a kinsman in the literary trade. Bailey daringly speculates that the young Cheever might have slept with his brother, Fred, a fellow alcoholic and ne’er-do-well. The brothers had an intensely complicated relationship —Cheever told a psychiatrist that it was “the most significant relationship in [his] life. . . . It was like a love affair.” “Whether it was an actual love affair is hard to say,” the probing biographer adds, “though it appears not to have been entirely platonic.” Even if Cheever hinted at something more with Fred, there is much ambiguity here.

It’s a wonder that Cheever, like that millionaire who “betrayed his friends and broke the hearts of his sweet wife and adorable children,” didn’t jump out a window himself. He opted instead for the slow-motion immolation of drinking. The last sections of Cheever: A Life come close to being unbearable. His resentments toward Mary amplified, and his behavior toward his children erupted into viciousness. He harped on Susan’s weight; he told his middle child, Ben, “You’re pathetic,” when he wasn’t telling him, “You laugh like a woman.” Bailey interviewed the Cheever children extensively—Susan and Ben, both now established authors in their own right, and the youngest son, Fred—and their testimony is frequently heartbreaking. “Cheever loved being a father in the abstract, but the everyday facts of the matter were often a letdown,” Bailey observes. Yet even when he wasn’t grappling with the difficulties of child rearing, Cheever found himself despondent all on his own. “My bowels are open, my balls are ticklish, my work moves, my children are well and unprecedentedly happy, I love my wife, my house is warm, so why should I wake in throes of melancholy,” he wrote in early 1967.

He would never find a satisfactory answer to that question, even if his last years brought a measure of peace. By the early ’70s, Cheever, a shambling, sodden wreck, all but ceased to function. A teaching stint at Boston University was a near disaster—he lived in a grubby flat, neglected his teaching duties, and took to drinking fortified wine with bums on park benches. When a cop harassed him, the writer, his hauteur bristling, told him, “My name is John Cheever.” But in this wretched phase—Updike found his idol naked one evening outside the older man’s apartment—Cheever began gathering himself for Falconer. Spirited to Manhattan’s Smither’s Alcoholism Treatment and Training Center by Fred, Cheever was pummeled into sobriety. His fellow patients didn’t buy his superior act, and the staff psychologist compared him to Uriah Heep: “He is a classic denier who moves in and out of focus. He dislikes seeing self negatively and seems to have internalized many rather imperious upper class Boston attitudes which he ridicules and embraces at the same time.”

Given the edifice Cheever constructed for himself over the decades, the writing of Falconer was a brave act. Some of the details he drew from his time as a creative-writing teacher in Sing Sing, but into the character of Ezekiel Farragut, Cheever put his most personal feelings about his desires and afflictions. “I like to think of Falconer as the sum of everything I’ve ever known and smelled and tasted,” he told Newsweek. Many of his decorous New Yorker readers must have been shocked to find their John Cheever writing the following scene, a tableau of men masturbating in a bathroom, where Farragut has gone to watch and participate: “There were the frenzied and compulsive pumpers, the long-timers who caressed themselves for half an hour, there were the groaners and the ones who sighed, and most of the men, when their trigger was pulled and the fusillade began, would shake, buck, catch their breath and make weeping sounds, sounds of grief, of joy, and sometimes death rattles.” But Cheever could finally say to himself, as Farragut does in the novel’s closing line, rejoice, rejoice.

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to Bookforum.

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