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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 onto “The Favorite of Tiberio” and “The Confessions of a Public School Headmaster” and “The Baseball Player’s Honeymoon.”

Every day he destroys what he’s written earlier. He finally saves himself from all these obscenities by plunging into a pool. These European stories are never as subtle as Henry James’s or Mavis Gallant’s, partly because Cheever, unlike these other two North Americans, seems incapable of imagining himself into being European, nor can he think beyond the usual American preconceptions about Italians.

Although Cheever’s excellent biographer Blake Bailey doesn’t set much store by it, one of Cheever’s most intriguing and experimental stories is “Boy in Rome,” which could be read as his answer to a book he despised (and envied), The Catcher in the Rye. The narrator in Cheever’s story is an American boy whose father has died in Rome and is buried in the Protestant Cemetery there:

So some Americans live in Rome because of the income tax and some Americans live in Rome because they’re divorced or oversexed or poetic or have some other reason for feeling they might be persecuted at home and some Americans live in Rome because they live there, but we live in Rome because my father’s bones lie in the Protestant Cemetery.

The casual, run-on narrative might vaguely recall Holden Caulfield, but what Salinger would never have written is the strange “release” toward the end of Cheever’s story. The narration has all been in the believable and highly circumstantial voice of the boy, but suddenly another voice altogether intrudes within a long parenthesis, almost as if we shouldn’t trust his boy in Rome but realize he’s the pure invention of a desperate prisoner:

(But I am not a boy in Rome but a grown man in the old prison and river town of Ossining, swatting hornets on this autumn afternoon with a rolled-up newspaper. I can see the Hudson River from my window. A dead rat floats downstream and two men in a sinking rowboat come up against the tide. One of them is rowing desperately with a boat seat and I wonder have they escaped from prison or have they just been fishing for perch and why should I exchange this scene for the dark streets around the Pantheon? Why, never having received from my parents anything but affection and understanding, should I invent a grotesque old man, a foreign grave, and a foolish mother? What is the incurable loneliness that makes me want to pose as a fatherless child in a cold wind and wouldn’t the imposture make a better story…? But my father taught me, while we hoed the beans, that I should complete for better or worse whatever I had begun and so we go back to the scene where he leaves the train in Naples.)

This passage is very weird, since it tucks into an extended parenthesis a whole new life of a skilled but previously invisible narrator and even his father who hoed beans! It also, curiously, alludes to Ossining, where Cheever lived, and foreshadows his interest in Sing Sing, the local prison, the model for the site of his last and most successful novel, Falconer.

In his little book on Gogol, Nabokov writes of Gogolian metaphors in which a whole distracting world is contained, perhaps a sign of the immense influence of Tristram Shandy, with its perpetual digressions, on Russian literature. In one of his texts Gogol inserts a major diversion in a metaphor that compares something to a bather; as Nabokov remarked:

Who is that unfortunate bather, steadily and uncannily growing, adding weight, fattening himself on the marrow of a metaphor? We never shall know—but he almost managed to gain a footing.

Cheever, probably in an original and unrelated impulse, cannot resist spawning one story from another; his is the fertile imagination of the born storyteller. He doesn’t have the spirit to write convincing novels, though he wrote five fascinating ones; they indicate someone who could spin almost any concatenation of events into a tall tale though he lacked powers of development. He could, at the most, place his stories in alternating episodes, but counterpoint is not the same thing as progression d’effet, that smooth, slow, seamless build so prized by Flaubert and Conrad and the true hallmark of the novel. In his inability to construct a coherent novel Cheever was similar to that other great storyteller, Chekhov, who worked for two years on a never-completed novel called, symptomatically, Stories from the Lives of My Friends.

Chekhov’s “failure” to write a novel could be attributed, especially in the context of the philosophical novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, to an inability to work up any great ideas. (Though he was an ecologist avant la lettre and concerned about women’s rights and prison reform and of course public health, even after a summer combating a cholera epidemic as a doctor he enraged progressive critics by using the epidemic in his next story only as a background to a romance.) As a doctor-observer who kept notebooks and was more interested in recording than prescribing behavior, Chekhov remarked at age twenty-eight to a friend:

I still lack a political, religious and philosophical world view—I change it every month—and so I’ll have to limit myself to descriptions of how my heroes love, marry, give birth, die, and how they speak.

Cheever could have written that sentence. And both would have been more than a little proud to be condemned to express no ideas but in things. This appetite for narrating through quick sketches was something that John Updike, a much more deliberate and slow-paced if no less eloquent writer, addressed at Cheever’s death:

One could not be with John Cheever for more than five minutes without seeing stories take shape: past embarrassments worked up with wonderful rapidity into fables, present surroundings made to pulse with sympathetic magic as he glanced around him and drawled a few startlingly concentrated words in that mannerly, rapid voice of his.

Cheever’s knack for working up vaudeville routines based on the anecdotes drawn from his everyday life explains his complaint once in a restaurant that the tables were too far apart. When asked why that bothered him he said, “Now I can’t eavesdrop on any of the conversations.” Overhearing other people’s talk was essential to his art; his was primarily a comic talent for improvising.

The comparison with Chekhov, so often made, should not be pushed too far. In much of his work Chekhov was genuinely neutral morally; it’s almost impossible to guess which character he sides with, whereas Cheever clearly takes sides and sometimes explicitly condemns a man or a woman. Cheever loved to write lush, ingenious nature descriptions of a rare beauty, whereas Chekhov sent this polite admonishment to the young Gorky:

Your nature descriptions are artistic; you are a true landscape painter. However, your frequent comparisons to humans (anthropomorphism)—the sea breathes, the sky looks on, the steppe basks in the sun, nature whispers, speaks, weeps, and so on—these kinds of personifications make your descriptions somewhat monotonous, a touch saccharine, vague; in descriptions of nature, vibrancy and expressivity are best produced by simple techniques, for example: using simple phrases such as “the sun set,” “it got dark,” “it started to rain,” and so on.

Again and again Cheever nests one story into another. One of his first successful stories, “The Enormous Radio,” is about a young wife in New York who listens to a new radio all day that, strangely enough, is tuned in not to broadcasts but to the conversations going on in the adjoining apartments. When her husband comes home one day she’s a wreck. She sobs:

They’re all worried about money. Mrs. Hutchinson’s mother is dying of cancer in Florida and they don’t have enough money to send her to the Mayo Clinic. At least, Mr. Hutchinson says they don’t have enough money. And some woman in this building is having an affair with the handyman—with that hideous handyman. It’s too disgusting. And Mrs. Melville has heart trouble and Mr. Hendricks is going to lose his job in April and Mrs. Hendricks is horrid about the whole thing and that girl who plays the “Missouri Waltz” is a whore, a common whore, and the elevator man has tuberculosis and Mr. Osborn has been beating Mrs. Osborn.

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