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John Cheever is everywhere

March 7, 2009 | 12:02 pm

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Twenty-seven years after his death, John Cheever is everywhere, due mostly to a new biography from Blake Bailey, "John Cheever: A Life." Susan Salter-Reynolds reviews the book in the Sunday paper (online now)

Blake Bailey's biography, like his book on Richard Yates, is beautifully woven, deeply researched and delightfully free of isms. That said, we know more at the end (and it is a wild ride) about the man than we do about his writing (beyond its autobiographical content), or the importance of his writing to American letters.

Best known for his short stories, Cheever won the National Book Award in 1958 for his first novel "The Wapshot Chronicle." He was married and had two children -- one is the author Susan Cheever -- and he was incredibly productive, publishing story after story in the New Yorker. But he was troubled, and by the mid-1970s was living alone, drinking far too much; even worse for an author, most of his books were out of print. Remarkably, he quit drinking at 62; he won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his runaway bestseller "The Stories of John Cheever" and was later awarded the National Medal for Literature.

The Daily Beast has Susan Cheever review the biography of her father, which she finds "disorienting" but "marvelous."

A lot of what has been written about my father stresses his dark side. Yes, he was a difficult, alcoholic, closeted gay man who was sometimes mean to his family. What seems to have been lost with time is his extraordinary humor. History rewards reverent earnestness, while the jokes and pratfalls and wit are often lost in translation. Darkness survives; lightness is ephemeral.

Bailey is the exception to this rule—he’s a funny man himself and his book shimmers with the wit that surrounded my father.

Susan Cheever bypasses the dark to focus on this lightness; in effect, the review reconstructs her family's history just, as Salter-Reynolds notes, her father John Cheever reconstructed his.

John Cheever's appearance on "The Dick Cavett Show" with John Updike has now been posted, in its entirety, by the New York Times. The conversation is erudite and affectionate -- Updike and Cheever were friends -- and ranges from baseball to books. And Cheever is funny:

Updike: I wish I could write like John Cheever, but I don't feel I do.... John is, I think, more of a transcendentalist than I am. There is a kind of radiance which he feels, and conveys.

Cheever: When John has brought off a paragraph that I think so much greatly superior to anything I had ever accomplished -- writing of course is a non-competitive endeavor -- but when I do read a page of John's that I think is essentially marvelous, my idea is to put it in a bucket of water and read it upside-down.

Although Updike and Cheever both wrote about suburban lives, Updike frequently wrote about sex, a topic Cheever avoided. When Cavett asks Cheever about this choice, he becomes visibly uncomfortable. Cavett steers the conversation away as quickly as he can, eventually getting them to talk about writers, like Norman Mailer, who pursued a life in the public eye.

Updike: It doesn't make your books any better, and it doesn't make you a better writer. It might sell a few, but only a few. Basically, you should not confuse the idea of yourself as a writer with the idea of yourself as a pundit or as a star of any sort.

Cheever: One of the important qualities of literature is that it does exist independently from merchandising. Celebrity sometimes is inclined to confuse the issue. A good book can very often conquer the fact that it is not advertised. There is a reading public, there is a knowledgeable reading public in this country and as a matter of fact all over the world.

Today, Cheever sounds a bit naive -- who would publish a book and not try to promote it? But the hope that good books will find their place is at the heart of the entire business of publishing. And despite his darkness, Cheever repeatedly said that good fiction was invincible. I believe he's right. 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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