Blake Bailey does not make it easy for the casual reader of his gargantuan John Cheever biography. But those who persevere will be rewarded with a compelling portrait of a complicated and tortured author, some of whose stories are among the best ever written.
At the start, Bailey assumes a familiarity with Cheever's character — conflicted bisexual, abysmal alcoholic, loving but often cruel father, relentless prevaricator — that exceeds what all but the most knowledgeable readers will bring to the book.
Thus, in a prologue and the early chapters on the history of Cheever's New England clan, Bailey jumps back and forth between the man's sins and triumphs, between what really happened and the mythology that Cheever made of it in conversation and private journals. It seems like nothing so much as the beginning of a dense and ambitious novel, and the exasperated reader will be forgiven for thinking, "700 pages of this?"
After a few chapters, though, Bailey settles down to a conventional chronological strategy, and the book finds its narrative legs.
Cheever, born in 1912 to a well-off family that fell on hard times, suffered a childhood marred by the weakness of a hard-drinking father and the strength of a resilient but controlling mother. The precocious young writer published his first story, Expelled, at age 18 in The New Republic.
Bailey details Cheever's conflicts with The New Yorker, where more than 100 of his stories eventually appeared; his interactions with important figures (Malcolm Cowley, e.e. cummings, William Maxwell, Muriel Rukeyser, Walker Evans, to name a few); his stormy marriage to Mary Winternitz; and his rise to precarious suburban gentility.
Cheever, amid massive insecurities, hit his peak as a short-story writer in the late '40s and '50s, writing beautiful melancholy stories of middle-class, mid-century American life. Critic John Leonard once admiringly called him "the Chekhov of the suburbs."
In late middle age, Cheever's drinking grew to suicidal proportions. His marriage in ruins, he finally went to rehab, after which he enjoyed a few years of fame and financial security. His novel Falconer (1977) was a best-seller. So was The Stories of John Cheever (1978), a rarity for a short-story collection. He died of cancer in 1982.
At first it may seem that Bailey doesn't much like Cheever, but this is not the case, as the forthright presentation of the man's behavior makes clear. Indeed, Cheever is more to be pitied than condemned, for he punished no one as much as himself.
The Cheever that most strongly emerges is the artist, striving against all obstacles, external and internal, to write real literature. Capturing the nobility of this struggle in the life of such an imperfect man is Bailey's signal achievement.
Chauncey Mabe can be reached at cmabe@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4710. Visit his Facebook page.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun