I come, not to bury Cheever, but to praise him.
John was my teacher then my friend. Forty years later I write early every morning, like him. Like him, instead of deciding what new work to read I reread Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart.” I have never let one of my students pay for lunch. Two strong bourbons are now my wild outer limit, unlike him. But that lesson also comes from John. Unlike Cheever, I’ve never made a sexual move on one of my students, even when they beg. (And lately there’s been far too little begging.)
John Cheever, now unfairly known as the gloomy, sodden satyr of suburbia, was at least rarely gloomy. Fact is he was more fun per minute than is legal in a nation this Republican. If his fiction still throws off salt spray and blinding daylight, his company amused, intrigued, specialized in dares. He always wanted to have a good time. “What’ll we try for fun now, and next, and…?”
In 1973, on my first day at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the secretary read from her list, “Go to Room 210 for Cheever.” “To READ Cheever?” “To meet Cheever, he’s your teacher, son. The old guy’s alive and right upstairs, at least he was a few minutes ago. But hurry.”
I felt as elated as scared. Wouldn’t this be like learning to sail a skiff from Melville in one of his rare but amazing good moods? Cheever and I must have things in common. Like him I was a veteran of military service. I’d served on an aircraft carrier off Vietnam; he of course, being six years older than my dad, was “WWII.” I hailed from the Southeast, which made me a sort of easterner. And like Cheever’s wife, Mary, I’d graduated from Sarah Lawrence, though not the school she later described, “where we wore white gloves to dinner and ate everything using a knife and fork, including bananas.”
The main difference between me and my fellow students shuffling toward his classroom? I had actually read John Cheever. The two others who’d managed were Ron Hansen and T. Correghesan Boyle. Amazing: nine of our twelve classmates, allowed to work with Cheever at the most competitive writing program in America, had never read a word he’d written. In 1973, Sixties youthfulness reigned: spontaneity sometimes means a lack of preparation also called stupidity. When I asked one fellow student what he thought of our teacher’s brilliant stories, the kid, who always seemed to have a head cold, replied, “I don’t want to be influenced.” I longed to pat the back of his hand and say, “Risk it!”
We peeked into Cheever’s classroom. He was seated cross-legged on a blond oak desk and looked like a Noël Coward leprechaun. Blue-and-white-striped Brooks Brothers shirt, unpressed khakis. John Cheever wore size-six Weejuns. (You know? I’ve always…
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