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.


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

The consoling husband has the radio removed—other people’s stories may be gripping but they can also have such a sad cumulative effect that they make one’s own life impossible to live.

Cheever’s canvases, like Breughel’s, are always crowded with incident and minor characters going about their activities oblivious to the pink legs of Icarus poking up from the sea where he has fallen. Plots are as productive and cartwheeling as dreams. In Bullet Park Melissa falls in love with the teenage grocery boy Emile, but they are found out and Melissa takes her son and moves to Italy. Emile is fired from the grocery but gets a job with a new supermarket. In order to attract customers the supermarket bosses decide to hide Easter eggs around town that can be redeemed for prizes—the biggest being trips to Rome, Paris, and Madrid. But Emile’s mother gets on the phone and gossips about how the eggs are hidden in her son’s car.

Just after midnight many alerted housewives in their nighties descend on Emile’s car and even let the air out of his tires. Panicked, he lowers the window and throws all the eggs into a field. When he’s fired again he signs up in the merchant marine and ends up in Naples, where he jumps ship and enters a male beauty contest that turns into a slave auction. Someone bids a lot of money on Emile; it’s Melissa, and the two of them enjoy a lustful idyll in Melissa’s Italian villa. This is just a short section of Bullet Park but suggests the odd, serendipitous quality of the plot inventions.

Cheever is, of course, famously a writer about upper-middle-class life in stories, usually first published in The New Yorker, that are set on Sutton Place or at summer resorts or in the well-to-do suburbs and that involve cooks and nannies and private schools. Almost always this glossy world is looked at from a jaundiced perspective. In “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” a suburban man is going broke and begins to rob the unlocked and unprotected homes of his neighbors. In “The Swimmer,” a man decides to swim the considerable distance home by traversing all the pools of his neighbors and friends, but as he makes his progress the seasons change, he ages, the neighbors become more hostile, and his house, when he reaches it, is boarded up. In “The Wrysons,” a seemingly bland suburban husband can only regain his equilibrium by secretly baking a Lady Baltimore cake at midnight.

In the opening pages of Bullet Park, Cheever for a moment assumes the point of view of a “zealous and vengeful adolescent” who surveys the village and thinks:

Damn the bright lights by which no one reads, damn the continuous music which no one hears, damn the grand pianos that no one can play, damn the white houses mortgaged up to their rain gutters, damn them for plundering the ocean for fish to feed the mink whose skins they wear and damn their shelves on which there rests a single book—a copy of the telephone directory, bound in pink brocade.

The houses are then shown to their advantage by a real estate dealer—and all the prices are given by the omniscient narrator as he describes them. Like dollhouses their walls can be removed and their contents and denizens studied. Everything is mercilessly catalogued, even the Advent calendar, and reduced to the quotidian banalities of the weather:

St. Paul meant blizzards. St. Mathias meant a thaw. For the marriage at Cana and the cleansing of the leper the oil furnace would still be running although the vents in the stained-glass windows were sometimes open to the raw spring air…. The trout streams open for the resurrection. The crimson cloths at Pentecost and the miracle of the tongues meant swimming.

Why has no one ever discussed Cheever as the great humorist he so clearly is, an American rival to Evelyn Waugh (who explores in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold the same paranoid fears of being exposed as a homosexual that so beset Cheever)? Everything in this passage is perfect, even Cheever’s decision not to capitalize the biblical events. In lowercase they become so killingly matter-of-fact, which is the whole joke.

Howard Moss, the poetry editor of The New Yorker, once said that fiction should be a combination of fairy tale and newspaper report. Cheever is sometimes discussed as a sociologist of the suburbs, but in fact a gold dust of fantasy touches everything he writes. In one of his best stories, “The Country Husband” (the story that made Hemingway wake up his wife in the middle of the night so that he could read it out loud to her), a man named Francis Weed survives a plane crash and hurries overland to his Dutch colonial house in Shady Hill. His children are squabbling, his wife preoccupied, and no one seems capable of registering his near brush with death. Francis falls in love with the baby-sitter; his wife threatens to leave him not because of his adulterous yearnings (which she doesn’t know about) but because he’s inconsiderate and has jeopardized their social standing by insulting the doyenne of Shady Hill. Francis sees a psychiatrist—and the whole suburban pastoral ends with the mysterious, irrelevant, but transfiguring lines: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.”

Cheever’s first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle, is full of such poetic excursions. Even the basic premise of the book is right out of a fairy tale: a rich maiden aunt, Honora, will leave her considerable fortune to her penniless Wapshot nephews Moses and Coverly but only if they get married and produce male heirs. This stipulation sends the boys off to New York and Washington to make their way and to find suitable partners—and triggers all the subsequent action, as in a Hellenic romance. Throughout the book, though, those fascinating little fleeting portraits of extras keep boiling up. When Coverly, who’s serving in the army, wants to get permission to leave the tropical atoll where he’s stationed to rush back to New England to his dying father’s side, he’s advised to approach the chaplain, who’s quickly established:

He wore steel-rimmed GI spectacles on a weak and homely face, and he was a man who belonged to the small places of the earth—to little towns with their innocence, their bigotry and their devilish gossip—and he seemed to have brought, intact to the atoll, the smell of drying linen on a March morning and the self-righteous and bitter piety with which he would thank God, at Sunday dinner, for a can of salmon and a bottle of lemonade.

Many of the wondrous features of Cheever’s style are on display in this passage. The surprising series that begins with “innocence” and goes on to “bigotry” and “devilish gossip” not only keeps the reader off balance but also seems unaccountably accurate, as does the catachresis “bitter piety.” And the complexity of contrasting sentiments is matched by the syntactical sinuousness of that one long sentence.

In his early stories the sentences sounded quite different. They were written under the influence of Hemingway; the grammar is simple, the nouns unadorned, the emotions implied but never analyzed. But when Cheever found his own voice in the late 1930s—as it is heard in his masterful 1950 story “Goodbye, My Brother”—the emotions are so subtle that they are hard to parse and the nature descriptions provide a majestic correlative to the action. Even the point of view in this story is equivocal; perhaps the narrating brother, who so charmingly takes us into his confidence, is the real villain of the piece. Just before the narrator strikes his brother Lawrence, the setting is already foreshadowing the feelings:

That beach is a vast and preternaturally clean and simple landscape. It is like a piece of the moon. The surf had pounded the floor solid, so it was easy walking, and everything left on the sand had been twice changed by the waves. There was the spine of a shell, a broomstick, part of a bottle and part of a brick, both of them milled and broken until they were nearly unrecognizable, and I suppose Lawrence’s sad frame of mind—for he kept his head down—went from one broken thing to another.

The use of the word “milled” brings the whole muted passage into crisp focus.

Cheever’s fiction is often exuberant, sometimes heady, even when the plot would seem better served by dreariness. Whereas aestheticians from Aristotle on have insisted that figurative language should redouble and underline the thrust of the anecdote, it turns out that exactly the opposite is what often appeals to us in great works of art, a strange and even mystical discrepancy between the natural drift of the story and the contradictory impulses of the metaphors and similes and descriptions. It was the Russian thinker Lev Vygotsky in his 1925 book The Psychology of Art who first pointed out that the reason Ivan Bunin’s story “Gentle Breath” has a paradoxical impact of lightness and airiness despite its sad plot is that all the details are moving in the opposite direction from the anecdote. Cheever no doubt never heard of Vygotsky but his stories demonstrate persuasively the truth of the Russian’s observations about the importance of such tension at the heart of a story.

The exuberance and humor and charm and energy of Cheever’s fiction constitute a powerful and heroic incantation to ward off the unrelenting bad luck of his life. As Blake Bailey presents that life in his thorough and brilliantly researched biography, Cheever was born in 1912 in Quincy, Massachusetts, into a nouveau pauvre family disgraced forever (according to Cheever’s prickly male supremacist notions) by his mother’s having opened a gift shop. His father was a drunk and a layabout: Cheever had to wait many years before he could recast his shamed feelings toward his father into his portrait of Lysander, the delightfully whimsical patriarch in the Wapshot books. Cheever’s mother never hesitated to tell him that while she was carrying him his father invited an abortionist to dinner; only at the last moment did she decide to go through with the pregnancy.

A poor student, Cheever attended Thayer Academy but was expelled for not studying. He took his revenge in 1930 at age eighteen with one of his first published works, “Expelled,” in The New Republic, accepted by the young Malcolm Cowley (who would become a lifelong friend and mentor and whose son would marry Cheever’s daughter).

Cheever, who was immensely likable, met and befriended many of the leading writers and artists of the day, became quite close to E.E. Cummings, and even had a guilt-ridden affair with the usually heterosexual photographer Walker Evans. Yaddo became his favorite retreat, an important refuge during the Depression, and the director, Elizabeth Ames, invited him back many times. In 1941 Cheever married Mary Winternitz, whose father had been the dean of Yale Medical School and whose grandfather, Thomas A. Watson, had been a coinventor of the telephone. Cheever, working hard to support a wife, began to publish in the “slicks” such as Harper’s Bazaar, Collier’s, and Mademoiselle. In 1942 he enlisted in the army and tested low-normal on the government IQ test. In 1942 he published his first short-story collection, The Way Some People Live, which wasn’t very good but may have saved his life since it impressed a major in the army who was also an MGM executive. He withdrew Cheever from his unit, which suffered terrible casualties in Europe in the last months of the war. Cheever was transferred as a writer to the former Paramount studios in Astoria, Queens.

After the war he began his twenty-year struggle to produce his first novel, which would finally take shape as The Wapshot Chronicle. In the meanwhile he supported his growing family by writing many, many stories for The New Yorker. Although people today revere The New Yorker, in the past it was something of a liability; I can remember in the 1950s how dismissive it was to call something a “typical New Yorker story,” by which people meant something slight, stylish, and vapid.

Although Cheever’s life looked from the outside like a string of successes (literary prizes, steady publications, the esteem of his peers), he was tormented by two possibly related problems: alcoholism and homosexuality. He seems to have been genuinely bisexual in that he often had affairs with women outside his marriage, notably with the beautiful actress Hope Lange. But he was also powerfully drawn to men, including the superb novelist Allan Gurganus, who was a student of Cheever’s at Iowa. Many of these crushes (like the one on Gurganus) were not reciprocated, which depressed him; those that were consummated upset him even more.

In 1971 Cheever began to teach writing to inmates at the nearby prison of Sing Sing in Ossining. The seemingly preppy WASP author was quickly accepted by the convicts; he became especially friendly with his student Donald Lang, who when he was paroled lived in a room near Cheever’s house, went on binges with him, and kept him constant company. Cheever’s inner circle thought that Lang had become his lover, if only intermittently.

By 1972 the drinking had taken on such epic proportions that Cheever was writing only one story a year, more or less. In 1975, after a spectacular meltdown while teaching at Boston University, Cheever was persuaded to enter the Smithers Alcoholism Treatment and Training Center in New York City. After a month there he never took another drink and by Good Friday 1976, he had finished his finest achievement, Falconer, which landed him on the cover of Newsweek. The book is about Farragut, a white, middle-class convict, sentenced to Sing Sing for fratricide, who falls in love with Jody, a Puerto Rican prisoner:

They met two or three times a week. Jody was the beloved and now and then he stood Farragut up so that Farragut had developed a preternatural sensitivity to the squeak of his lover’s basketball sneakers. On some nights his life seemed to hang on the sound.

What was remarkable was that Cheever finally had the sobriety to think through a novel and sustain its unified design. No longer were his pages inspired riffs held together with paper clips and chewing gum; now he’d turned out a shapely novel. Moreover, there was a calm wisdom in this Falconer, his masterpiece, and in it he had quietly come to terms with homosexuality.

Cheever’s marriage, which had become Strindbergian in its rancor and spleen, never recovered from the violence and disorder of his decades of drinking. Mary, his wife, to be sure, had her own flaws; she talked and acted like a little girl into old age and was anything but forgiving, but she did stick with her husband through his final battle with cancer and alcohol-related illnesses, which led to his death on June 18, 1982. During the last five years of his life Cheever had also come to terms sufficiently with his homosexual impulses to be able to sustain an affair with a student he’d met at the University of Utah.

The vitality and fantasy of Cheever’s writing, even when he is at his most serious, stand in complete contrast to the despair and loneliness and boredom of his life. What was it that allowed him to transform all this dullness into art? My own answer may sound trivializing but I would say it was his knack for writing seductively about the world of the senses—its colors and associations, its sexiness and its smells (above all, its smells!), not to mention its suave beauty, at once transitory and eternal in a way that Wallace Stevens understood in that paradoxical line of “Peter Quince at the Clavier”: “The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.”

This Issue

April 8, 2010