The Strange Charms of John Cheever

Cheever: A Life

by Blake Bailey
Knopf/Vintage, 770 pp., $35.00; $16.95 (paper)
Harry Benson
John Cheever standing above Sing Sing prison in the town of Ossining, New York, where he lived from 1961 until his death in 1982; from ,Harry Benson: Photographs, just published by powerHouse Books

Stendhal once said that writing should not be a full-time job, and John Cheever’s unhappy life seems to lend substance to his remark. He had too much free time, too much creative energy, too many hours to feel lonely or to drink or to get up to sexual mischief that he immediately regretted. He was both a reckless hedonist and a starchy puritan, just as he was also a freelancer with pretensions to being a country squire, both unfortunate combinations. Oh—and have I mentioned that he was bisexual? And a self-hating little guy who was always ripping his clothes off at parties and plunging into the pool, then mourning his exhibitionism and small penis in his journals the next morning?

There are many other inner contradictions and cruel paradoxes in Cheever’s life (cruel to himself and to his family). For instance, he had grown up in fairly genteel but deep poverty with a bossy “castrating” mother (that Freudian harridan in the imagination of the period) and a flaky alcoholic father, but Cheever was not much better as a parent. He railed at his daughter Susan for being chubby (he wanted her to be as sleek and blond and country-clubbish as the daughters of his neighbors), criticized his son Ben for being a sissy, and seemed to love only his youngest child, Federico (born in Italy). In his novel Bullet Park the uncomprehending but powerful love of Nailles for his mixed-up son Tony parallels Cheever’s love for Federico (the fact that Tony is also loosely a portrait of the young Cheever makes this family romance all the more grippingly narcissistic).

Living in Italy for extended periods was the great geographical adventure of Cheever’s life and a foil to his obsession with American exurbia. Many of his stories and much of The Wapshot Scandal, his second novel, are set in Italy; depending on their mood his American characters are bewildered by the language and the crowding and the thieving criminality of the Italians, or they are seduced by the Italians’ beauty and pagan amorality, or they are beset by homesickness and long for hamburgers and baseball. Italy is a theater in which Cheever could stage his inner conflicts. In one of his stories, “The World of Apples,” he dramatized the struggle between his licentiousness and his acute moralizing. An aging expatriate poet, laden with honors, lives in the Italian countryside. But every time he begins to write something new it comes out as an obscene scrawl, a banal but offensive piece of pornography: “Filth was his destiny, his best self, and he began with relish a long ballad called The Fart That Saved Athens.” Later he’s…

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