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 wanted to write that! For its interior rhymes, for its being factual, for its snappy attempt at sounding both as smart and clear as, well, a John Cheever sentence. So, yeah, “John Cheever wore size-six Weejuns.”)
Though he was only sixty-one, due to being a lifelong chain-smoker-drinker, fresh from intensive care, the guy looked eighty. And I, at twenty-five, studying this battered idol, felt too smooth, half-formed. He’d just suffered an embolism back east. And after promising his family otherwise, he understood he could not stop drinking. So he’d been banished from his home. Cheever found himself: guest writer booby prize at the top-bidding grad program. I entered his classroom last, nodding. He thoroughly checked out my fashionable pleated pants and all that those implied and contained.
Introducing himself to us kids, he showed old-world deference. Cheever’s courtesy struck me as heartbreaking. He treated us like this room’s celebrities. Such eagerness to amuse and be amused, such readiness to become hopeful, or at least distracted. He’d already written most of his immortal prose and just this mortal husk seemed left. John had once been actor-handsome, the juvenile lead. But backdraft nicotine and the erosions of Scotch had left him floating in their wake—a scratched stick. Still he emitted an aristocratic soulfulness familiar to southerners who still equate distinction with lost causes.
Though never a tall man, even seated he gave the odd impression of having once been park-statue huge. Maybe this was the trailing scent of the nineteenth century? John had only missed it by a dozen years. He carried an ardent charge, some chance belief in that great Greco–New England birthright called “Valor, Decency, Love.” He embodied Transcendentalist optimism, though it was by now like those jet streams you only see at sunset. Whenever he grew nervous, as he was today, his accent “more temperamental than regional” broadened its broad A’s. By now not even Katharine Hepburn could’ve understood him.
Cheever readily acknowledged that his fiction stood eclipsed by certain younger writers we considered hip. All grad students believe their taste pioneering, not merely faddish. But my generation lionized Richard Brautigan, Ron Sukenick, Herman Hesse’s orientalia, Tom Robbins’s hallucinations. (Now of course it is clear which artist proved pure protein, which the merest pot-inspired carbs.) First-day Cheever called his work “likely old-fashioned.” Of course he hoped to be contradicted.
“For instance,” he intoned. “I believe a story of mine begins, ‘It was one of those days when people sat around and said “I DRANK too much last night.”’ Miss Smith, do provide us a modern equivalent of this antiquated trope, one perhaps better fitted to YOUR generation, Miss Smith. Aaaah, Miss Smith? ‘It was one of those epochs or moments what-have-you when…’ Miss Smith?”
But Miss Smith, Iowa-born, comfy with long silences spent listening to prairie winds during January family dinners, simply said, “Sir, I cannot unnerstand your…WORDS, sir.”
“It’s not important, dear. But, class, do mark my words in this at least. Some beautiful things will come out of you this year.”
And I believed him.
Cheever’s fiction celebrates daylight as a form of salvation. Of course his pages creating brilliance had to be offset by a contrasting ink-jet blackness, as dark as the pitchiest corner of a Goya masterpiece. Cheever’s impish human essence showed that same ratio of dark-to-light. He later guilt-tripped me into attending an Iowa Episcopal service; there, in the bone-plain church, he dropped a mid-aisle contortionist’s genuflection that looked downright papal.
As a companion, he proved not just mischievous, he was Mischief itself. Constant word games, inventing naughty stories about each table of fellow diners. He staged a childish sulk if while walking the campus we ran into my undergrad Swedish-American boyfriend. Cheever expressed ecstasy over some oil rainbow flung across a puddle. He would skinny-dip in icy public rivers while you stood pretending to be a lamppost. Confronting Iowa hostesses who looked too much like Margaret Dumont, he’d goose those ladies. He would. The wisest of them giggled, “Oh, now John, you bad bad boy. Not again!” He was Cole Porter one minute, Groucho the next, suddenly a drunken stumblebum, then the wisest of Chekhov’s cynics. John was selfish and ruined. He was a child, he was a genius. He was a scamp, he was a man.
His Great Depression boyhood had mangled him. I swear his trials outranked Dickens’s child-job making boot polish. John’s mother wanted her son’s thanks: for having outrun the abortionist she swore his dad had brought home to end him. “I hope you appreciate it.” Reared with expectations, he found there’d be no trust fund. He was erotically exploited by an adored older brother. This left him guilty and confused at the very center of his own desire.
When a young man, he turned up at magical Yaddo in 1934, he arrived very hungry. And yet this same person somehow wrote the books, didn’t he? That is why, a century later, we’re happy to still read him. If only for the hundreds of stories he wrote, many of us yet feel loyal to him. And those of us who got to love him know, with all his wounds and losses, the fervor of his love is what still makes a lighthouse of his prose. The best of John’s writing is so good, it long ago ceased to be a porthole onto created horizons; it has become a kind of sunlit gold standard itself.
His best tales have the force of allegory and the benefit of psychology. They can make the ancient rites of dispossession and fratricide lyrical. His short fiction pivots between Freudian case studies, Sherwood Anderson pathologies, and fables by Aesop. This high school dropout’s sources? Solely the best. Madame Bovary, Bulfinch’s Mythology, the Book of Common Prayer, parables from our King James Bible.
As he turns one hundred this year, we must note the continuing livingness, the classical trim and snap, of Cheever’s eternal prose. He hailed from seagoing New Englanders with a fatal love of water. And no one ever wrote about it better. Our race is largely H2O, so we are most richly spiritually at home in a bath, or while doing laps, or as a swimmer seeking some way out. I still wonder if Joni Mitchell didn’t write this great line about John Cheever. “Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”
John had to believe in God because he knew the devil. But it is time to right the corroded record of his misbehaviors. I don’t envy his biographers all the Cheever facts they must explain. Most bulk and loom in his posthumously published Journals. This work can seem a ten-thousand-page suicide note:
I approach my fortieth birthday without having accomplished any one of the things I intended to accomplish—without ever having achieved the deep creativity I have worked toward all this time—I feel that I take a minor, an obscure, a dim position that is NOT my destiny but that IS my fault….
Who among us hasn’t felt such things? (If not daily, perhaps.) And yet Cheever’s very act of daily writing utilizes nullity. His journal entries are leaps of faith toward others or at least posterity. His daughter Susan’s tender, aching Home Before Dark and Blake Bailey’s magisterial biography Cheever: A Life bravely face down this dilemma: How to make binge number 3,005 more interesting to readers than it was for the drinker himself? How to fuse the contradictions of a man so sunk in Cotton Mather’s charbroiled Hell while still forging whole pages of prismatic daylight?
Though I did see John drink often, only once was he ever plainly drunk. Though my student conference with him started only when I had finally removed his hand from my thigh, after that we managed shop talk, ideas, goodwill; he eventually forgave me my wise young prudery. I understood that married men, drawn to boys, have a talent for compartmentalizing, the pitiless instant issuing of pink slips come dawn.
John had much to teach me as a writer, nothing as a lover nearly four decades my senior. To be his honored student or his shamed catamite? There was nothing between.
I opted, in this rare instance, for chastity. If the choice was wise, it required perpetually reestablishing. John held office hours for all his pupils in his university hotel room. It offered a single desk chair. Someone, usually the deferring youth, had to sit on Cheever’s bed. Scotch whiskey was served in iceless toothbrush glasses from a pour-top half-gallon. Given his distinction and its being 1973, the university never noticed.
John taught me and, later, without my knowing, sent and sold my first story to The New Yorker. When gentle William Maxwell whispered this news by phone to my one-room apartment, I said, “Yeah, and I’m Mae West, who the hell is this?”
John was a father figure one could enjoy and respect, even with incest as his subtext. Which father from the 1950s ever paid his talented if non-football-playing son any attention? John, stranded in Iowa far from family, found Sunday afternoons hardest to bear. We took long walks along the river to a forgotten local zoo. I mapped such treks to keep him away from the bottle and his drear hotel room.
For a while, because of my youth and start-up promise, I think I became, through little merit of mine, John’s projection of his own younger, healthier self. Coaching my prose, praising my shoulders, he was seeing a new demi-Cheever, if possibly an underachiever. He, Depression-deprived, saw me as a boy reared in times more prosperous by parents far gentler. He’d been born two years before the First World War and I two years after the Second. John might’ve been imagining the person he could have become—if only saved early enough.
Maybe this is why, in 1973, he tried to convince me to move to Manhattan with him. There I might become what Joe Biden now calls his “monogamous life partner.” It would be a fairly late market correction for the bard of heterosexual suburbia. He was already married with children older than I. His habits and unhappiness had nearly killed him. By now his cough could clear waiting rooms. He was the Pompeii where cigarettes go to die.
I had the silly confidence made possible by youth and Sarah Lawrence. And I, incidentally, never wanted be “Mrs.” Anybody. I think what John truly sought, like so many straight men restless in their sixties, was some decorative chauffeur-cook-concubine. I felt overqualified for that role, even if Cheever had been my exact contemporary. He thought he could move in with a young man in America and get away with it. For all the woes of his life till then, Cheever had no idea what true difficulty would’ve awaited such an endgame gambit. I spared him.
Even so, arriving in New York on my own, I was instantly “the boy that seduced Cheever in Iowa.” Homophobia landed on my head, not the senior master’s. Among a growing list of works tracing his life, only Blake Bailey’s 744-page biography actually takes truth from Cheever’s journals. It treats my moderating role with moral clarity.
John later introduced me to his wife and kids. They all forgave me for having forgiven him. Weren’t we all fellow sufferers of his snobbish exuberance?
Forty years later there’s this concept called “sexual harassment.” A professor trying to force himself upon his student is fired at once for the worst sort of poaching. But something in the fumbling, hopeless way John attempted it let me know he was seeking some last chance. Instead of preying on me, I sensed he was trying to show me his very best. He meant to demonstrate all he might have been if born into my generation, not 1912’s. I am still in love with his prose. Never with his “corpus” but surely with his “opus.” Which means, of course, in love with that short gigantic man himself.
One strolling Sunday, he interrupted a sandlot football game of Iowa eighteen-year-olds. He asked if I, his twenty-five-year-old grad student, could play with them, please. The boys were so ashamed for me they said yes. Look, I never claimed I was NFL draft material, okay? But that autumn day (like a golden day in Cheever, really) to please John—smoking in the stands with a father’s bored pride—I scored my last touchdown. His response: “That was mah-velous, ab-solutely mahvelous. Go do another one.”
John was such a terrible snob he loved admitting it. I often found myself saying, “John, you don’t MEAN that!” But you know? He mostly did. He acted kinder to good-looking people than homely ones. He only considered about one percent of the population nearly good-looking enough. And then just those with some distinction, some whippet or borzoi stylization to their profiles. “That third soccer player from the left has a certain John Singer Sargent something that would do nicely, I imagine.”
His sense of aristocracy derived—less from inherited title and fortune—more from inborn talent. For instance he saw his friendly competitor Saul Bellow as the bluest of blue bloods, a sheer Prince of Giftedness. We’re all snobs about something. John’s hobbyhorses were seventeenth-century American family ties, present-day good looks, and know-how with sailboats or chainsaws. But he was most discerning about others’ artistic talent. Having so much of it himself, he was a fair if savage judge. He bragged that by simply holding his hand over a manuscript he knew if the writer “had” it. The Cheever lit-crit credo could be summed up as “Yes” or “No.” Duke Ellington, another unaccountable aristocrat of satin talent, tells us, “There are two kinds of music: music that sounds good and whatever you want to call that other stuff.”
We must admit John’s legendary disenchantments. But past the valley of the shadow, let us also describe, on his hundredth birthday, that playful luminous spirit: his pride in his gifted children, his complex love for his wife, his miraculous mastery of craft, and its ongoing gift to us.
I never stop reading him. I swear he gets better every month. So much of the best of him yet lives—his own carbon-based life form still blazing up through ink at us. I still feel him boiling everything down into fables for our time and our future. Today’s story must be under five thousand words because The New Yorker isn’t taking anything longer. It must be mailed to the magazine’s Bill Maxwell because—even if he seems to underpay as an act of tacit competition—that bare minimum is still needed weekly for three kids’ orthodontia and boarding school tuitions and to just maintain a great good Westchester home. Afforded how? By daily writing another couple stories. That is heroism. Is there any wonder that a wizard living with such daily pressure drank?
And if the first page he types does not utterly sing here in the maid’s room where such wage-earning occurs, he just wads that up, rolls a clear page into his trusty manual, retries. That last attempt just didn’t mean enough of one thing; it lacked salt-sting, apple-smell. And so, again, to start over—again the compression, the emotive surge, the sheer necessity we feel in these brief stories that tumble in only to recede with tidal force. Even as we read them today, all are still guided, puppeteered, and deified by one confused pansexual 130-pound alcoholic husband and father, not yet allowing himself to sneak off in stocking feet and snitch an 11 AM snort from the pantry, a reward, for another morning spent earning his way into the promised world denied him, while carrying on his back—his family, his lies and addictions, his fugitive sex, his hopes, his genius, and, of course, his beneficiaries, all the readers left alive on earth.
Here is the conclusion of John’s own favorite tale, a variant of Cain and Abel, 1951’s “Goodbye, My Brother.” Despite a near murder the page before, Cheever ends with this meridian of equipoise and faith:
They left for the mainland the next morning, taking the six-o’clock boat. Mother got up to say goodbye, but she was the only one…I heard the children’s voices and the car go down the drive, and I got up and went to the window, and what a morning that was! Jesus, what a morning! The wind was northerly. The air was clear. In the early heat, the roses in the garden smelled like strawberry jam. While I was dressing, I heard the boat whistle, first the warning signal and then the double blast and I could see the good people on the top deck drinking coffee out of fragile paper cups….
The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming—Diana and Helen—and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.
November 8, 2012
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