“For me a page of good prose is where one hears the rain. A page of good prose is when one hears the noise of battle.... A page of good prose seems to me the most serious dialogue that well-informed and intelligent men and women carry on today in their endeavor to make sure that the fires of this planet burn peaceably.”
I’m always taking a chance when I decide to read a biography of someone I admire. Once the person becomes human, sometime too human, it can color how you see their work. James Kaplan stopped by to see Cheever and the experience was not what he had hoped it would be. ”One learns to separate the writer from the writing,” Kaplan reflected many years later, “and my meeting with Cheever was sort of my final lesson.”
I have a friend, who used to be a premier book collector, but a nasty divorce ended with a court order that he had to sell his books. His ex-wife really knew how to hurt him. He would send books with me to be signed by some of his favorite writers, but he refused to meet them. He simply could not bear to think that they would not live up to his expectations.
I enjoy meeting writers and interacting with writers, but I don’t have any expectations that they will be as interesting as their writing. It is great when they prove to be brimming with wit and charm. People who can write beautiful prose can’t necessarily speak as eloquently as they write. Sometimes they lack social skills or are too caught up in their own persona to engage with readers. Edward Abbey for instance refused to sign my books until my girlfriend said she would meet him for coffee. Okay I was a little surprised, relieved that he wasn’t wanting me to go to coffee and all that would entail. My girlfriend switched some digits on her phone number, well that is what she told me. Abbey was suddenly happy and signed my books with a flourish. The books are still in my library, the girlfriend, but a very distant memory and my view of Abbey? Well I knew his reputation and though his rampant horniess did put me in an uncomfortable spot all that happened was that I came away with a really good story. Abbey gave me a sly look that said he had scored points on a man forty years younger, but I have a handful of signed books steadily gaining value and the woman is someone else’s problem.
The thing about Cheever is he was a brilliant, natural writer. He was a high school dropout who wrote his first story at eighteen a story chronicling his time at school called ”Expelled”
. Malcolm Cowley accepted it for publication at The New Republic
and a writer was born. Cowley said, ”I felt that I was hearing for the first time the voice of new generation.”
Cheever had a gift for memory. His daughter, Susan, relates a story about her father sitting at the kitchen table and asking her if she wished to hear a story he was writing. She expected him to go get his manuscript, but he just related it to her word for word. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald, who he has been compared with, he did not go into laborious revisions. F. Scott was a relentless polisher, but for Cheever stories came out whole cloth. Bailey found an early draft of Falconer, ”That draft affords a fascinating glimpse of how Cheever worked when inspired. Page after page is virtually unpunctuated, unparagraphed, unrevised in any way, yet the actual words are almost identical to the published version”
This book goes into great detail about Cheever’s sexual life. He kept a journal for most of his life and spent an inordinate amount of time writing about his sexual desires, loathing himself for finding himself attracted to men. ”He speaks scornfully of effeminate men lest he be misunderstood and as he scorns his own effeminacy. And in making this harsh judgement I might say that I sometimes live behind a veil of ignorance myself.”
Cheever was clear about how he felt. Every encounter with suspected homosexuals (“with their funny clothes and their peculiar smells and airs ands scraps of French”) struck him as “an obscenity and a threat,” such that his own impulses were unbearable and had to be numbed with alcohol or blamed on his wife.
Yes, Cheever was in so much denial about his own sexual desires that it not only lead to chronic drinking, but also started to hinder his ability to write. The drinking, gin in the early days, then scotch, then as he needed to keep up appearances vodka, lead to impotency with his wife. Even when he took a mistress, the actress Hope Lange, the beautiful woman put no lead in his pencil. Their physical relationship was restricted to oral ministrations.Hope Lange
Cheever at one point seeks out the notorious Ned Rorem who published his explicit diaries chronicling his sexual history as well as outing several prominent men as to their sexual proclivities. Even though Rorem was not physically attracted to Cheever he did have a relationship with him which gave Cheever no end of stress worrying about Rorem exposing him to the press. Self destructive behavior or a desire to finally be free?
Cheever “seduced”admirers and would come home and bragged about his conquests to his wife. He was not subtle in his seductions usually indicated his desire by putting their hand on his crotch or pulling his pants down. His impotency was only a problem with women.
As his career takes off, Hollywood comes knocking and makes him reasonably comfortable for the first time in his life. The Wapshot Chronicle becomes a bestseller, but he is still drinking heavily and having issues with his sexuality. He takes a job teaching at the famed Iowa Fiction Workshop. His first class had Allan Gurganus, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and Ron Hansen all of whom went on to have stellar writing careers. His students were often frustrated with his lack of instruction. He would read their work and tell them if it worked or didn’t work, but he would never be specific about what was wrong. Gurganus in particular drove Cheever to distraction. Cheever would fret over what he perceived to be the young man’s sudden effeminacy, not to say his shameless teasing. “The more he flirts, the more he seems like a woman. He was so perfect in many ways--witty, well read, gifted--if only he weren’t so homosexual. And, given that he let himself be known as gay, the least he could do--or so Cheever manifestly believed--was go to be with him!”
Despite many attempts Cheever never does get Gurganus in bed. Gurganus is reportedly charming and deflects these attempts with such grace that they remained lifelong friends.
Cheever after several stints in the hospital to get dried out, none of which worked for longer than it took him to get out of the car, go to his stash in the pantry, and start the ruinous cycle over again. Finally he has an attack that almost kills him, weakens his heart ,and finally he checks himself into a lockdown facility that gets him permanently dry. He can not believe how much energy he has now that he is not in a drunken haze for most of the day. He buys a bike and starts biking sometimes five miles a day every day. How many more Cheever books would there have been if he had come to terms with his drinking sooner? His antics while drunk drove a wedge between him and his kids. His wife never really forgave him. She never left him, but she was present physically not spiritually. He talked a lot about loneliness in his journals and the slapdash friendships he made with other writers were often strained over jealousy or his sharp tongue. John Updike tried to be a dutiful worshiper of his friend Cheever, but often found himself avoiding him. It was hard to see what a wreck Cheever had made of himself. ”You might say that he had lost the gift of evoking the perfumes of life: sea water, the smoke of burning hemlock, and the breasts of women. He had damaged...the ear’s innermost chamber, where we hear the heavy noise of the dragon’s tail moving over the dead leaves.”
I spent a year reading John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings. I would read a story about every night at bedtime sometimes two. Like many people among my favorite stories are ”The Swimmer”,
and ”The Enormous Radio”
. If you intend to be a writer you must read him. I will warn you that when he is on his best game he can be discouraging to writers. I at times find myself staring slack jawed at the wall after reading one of his beautiful stories thinking to myself how could I ever dream about being a writer? He was a wonderful observer, even when plowed out of his mind, he would still remember minute details for future stories. His wife quit fighting with him, usually goaded into a fight by Cheever, because like Zelda Fitzgerald she would later be incensed when she would find her words incorporated in stories. He did finally make peace with his sexuality, and his children later in life. Though his wife Mary was a different story. Even long after he was dead she still remembered things as they were and never did metamorphise her life with him into nostalgia, even though writers and admirers would have liked her to perpetuate a myth.
Cheever broke himself on the wheel of 1950s, 1960s, etc. homophobia and on his own inability to conform to his own ideal version of himself. He was a man crushed by his own desires, his chronic drinking, and his own self-inflicted loneliness. He was a man too human to bear up under the scrutiny of being famous. We must remember him for his beautiful prose.
Bonnie in the thread below this review shared a link that has Cheever reading The Swimmer
. It is not to be missed. Thanks Bonnie. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5I8_Jyp26Cg