Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey

[11 May 2009]

By James R. Fleming

I have never finished reading a John Cheever story or novel without being overcome by a tremendous sense of sadness. This sadness comes from having to both depart from Cheever’s beautiful, painstaking prose, as well as the heartbreaking plights and circumstances of his characters. While Cheever’s fiction is occasionally humorous and at times even touching, a biting sense of helplessness, loss, and misery nearly always underlines his work. Often, the ultimate point or moral of a Cheever story is that we cannot escape ourselves or our circumstances, no matter how boldly we might struggle to do so.

Instead, Cheever suggests that the few pleasures and joys encountered along the way—however far between they might be—come from the struggle itself and the bits of self-awareness we might gain in the process. Coupled with these impressions is the knowledge that I have of Cheever’s own life and circumstances, much of which was revealed in his posthumously published journals and letters. Cheever’s life, like those of many of his protagonists, was that of a genius, though one hampered by countless contradictions, hang-ups and addictions. While biographical criticism has its obvious weaknesses as a method of approaching a literary work, there is no denying that Cheever put much of his own pain and suffering into his fiction, hence reading Cheever’s work against his own life can be a painful though fruitful undertaking. 

With Cheever: A Life, Blake Bailey has composed an outstanding and highly readable account of the life of one America’s foremost modern fiction writers. As with his last literary biography, Richard Graves: A Life, Bailey offers an incredibly well-researched history of his subject. In fact, Bailey has written one of the most moving, vivid and readable literary biographies I have read. Given the turgid and downright boring nature of many literary biographies, this is no small accomplishment on Bailey’s part. Throughout the book his prose is smooth and engaging and his presentation of Cheever’s life both fair and compassionate. He doesn’t resort to diagnosing, judging or moralizing Cheever. Instead, and much in the spirit of Cheever’s own writing, he allows us the opportunity to make of the man’s life what we might.

The book’s greatest strength is its sheer level of detail. Bailey doesn’t just explore the scope of Cheever’s life, but dips several centuries back into Cheever’s family history to begin to unravel the author’s complicated family roots. Given Cheever’s life-long obsession with his family’s history and legacy, particularly in terms of what it meant to be a New England “Cheevah” and the burdens this imposed upon him, this was an important area of the author’s life to explore, and also an easy one for Bailey to have neglected. Nevertheless, Bailey goes to great lengths to reconstruct the very foundations upon which Cheever’s life and self-conception was built.

From this point, he moves through Cheever’s life year by year, often giving every year or two of his life an entire chapter. Bailey explores Cheever’s marriage, his relationships with his children, as well as those with his various lovers, contemporaries and rivals, and students. In many respects, Bailey’s approach is more akin to that of a novelist than a historian or biographer. He does not treat Cheever’s life as a foregone conclusion, but rather as a drama unfolding before us. Bailey takes us through Cheever’s life and beyond, winding down with a sense of muted irony with Cheever’s ultimate fate in American consciousness: as a Seinfeld punch line.

In a rather infamous episode of Seinfeld, Kramer burns down the house of George’s girlfriend Susan. All that remains is a box of love letters from Cheever to Susan’s father, in turn revealing her father’s long-hidden sexuality. Larry David, who wrote the episode, is quoted by Bailey as saying that Cheever was used as part of the plot simply because he was a well known gay writer. Bailey suggests that this would have devastated Cheever for he certainly would not have wanted to be remembered simply as a writer who was gay. Bailey, though, does not overplay this point, but instead moves on. This simple gesture alone demonstrates what makes Bailey’s biography of Cheever so powerful. He doesn’t try to hammer home the ultimate tragedies or failures of Cheever’s life, but, much like a good novelist, simply lets such sit for us to absorb and contemplate. 

The book’s only weakness is the relative lack of critical attention it gives to Cheever’s writings, which surprised me. Given the wealth of material Bailey has amassed, and his keen insights into Cheever’s motivations and experiences, close readings of Cheever’s central writings—such as “The Swimmer”, “The Enormous Radio”, The Wapshot Chronicles, and Falconer—were expected.  However, Bailey’s interpretations and comments on Cheever’s writings are rather limited. Given the enormous sensitivity he shows his subject, I expected Bailey to highlight, in detail, the very work that Cheever suffered and sacrificed so much for.

It is not that Bailey avoids providing critical readings on Cheever’s work entirely—in fact, his reading of The Wapshot Chronicles is among the most interesting and informative takes on the novel I have read—it is that his readings do not go far enough. Given the wealth of knowledge he provides in terms of Cheever’s life, influences and circumstances, a strong critical reading of Cheever’s work would seem par for the proverbial course. Bailey has the tools and the knowledge here to provide what might have served as the definitive critical reading of Cheever’s work, yet he does not offer such. 

This, however, is a deficit often found in biographies of other great writers. As with many biographers of other larger-than-life writers such as Lord Byron, Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson, Bailey seems to be so enraptured by the life of his subject that he puts the author’s work to the wayside and, whether intentionally or not, effectively presents the subject’s work as being inferior to the life of the write. I wonder if this failure is owed to a lack of objectivism that perhaps comes from studying someone’s life so carefully. Perhaps biographers often find themselves unable to step away from the life of their subjects and engage their work in a methodical, detached critical fashion. Regardless, a full critical evaluation of Cheever’s work would have served to make this book all the more effective and, perhaps, installed Cheever in his proper place in the American literary cannon as one of greatest story-tellers.

Despite the lack of critical attention it gives to Cheever’s work, Cheever: A Life nevertheless provides a deeply insightful portrait into the life and times of a man considered by many to be America’s Chekhov. Bailey has written what is surely not only the year’s best literary biography, but also one of the year’s most poignant dramas. For general readers and critics of Cheever, this book is of terrific value in terms of the insights it provides into Cheever’s mind and circumstances. This book will surely open doors to a variety of new and original readings of Cheever’s work. For those unfamiliar with Cheever, Bailey’s book serves as the perfect introduction (and, mutually, master class) to one of the most remarkable figures in modern American literature.

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