Philip Hensher

Nothing succeeds like excess

In 1975, admitted to an institution for inveterate alcoholics, John Cheever alarmed and scandalised the staff by what they called inappropriate laughter:

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Cheever: A Life

Blake Bailey

Picador, pp. 770, £

‘Why are you laughing?’ they demanded again and again, as Cheever tittered at some grindingly miserable memory from his youth, or some cruelty he’d inflicted on his children.

What his keepers were pathologising was the writer’s genius to see the hilarious in the chaotic, the respectable, the insulting and the desperate. Cheever was, above all, extremely funny, and he has been served now by a marvellous biography which, through it all, manages to keep its sense of humour. Blake Bailey’s Life is alarming, truthful, scabrous, but above all absurdly funny. You feel Cheever wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

The medical professionals had never heard of Cheever — ‘he insists [his novels] have been very successful’, his surviving medical notes sceptically record — and by now, he seems to be a specialist taste. He is, I suppose, to American literature much what Henry Green is to English. His body of work amounts to a substantial number of short stories, many of which were written for the New Yorker. The best, written between the mid 1940s and the mid 1960s, epitomise that magazine’s legendary lucid elegance of style and obliqueness of treatment. (The stories after the classic ‘The Swimmer’ of 1963, which was turned into a hallucinogenic cult movie later in the decade, are much weaker than his best). There are five novels, of which three — The Wapshot Chronicle, Bullet Park and Falconer — are masterpieces of the first rank. His fiction is centred on boozing, adultery, family tensions and community eccentricity, often in upper-middle class New England; it is telling about his habitual vision of the wealthy of Connecticut that, in Falconer, his manner needed hardly any adjustment to deal with the inside of a men’s prison.

There are, too, the Letters and the Journals, selected from and published after Cheever’s death. They revealed not just the almost incredible extent of Cheever’s alcoholism, but what had only been known to a small circle, his energetically pursued bisexuality. The journals that survive are very extensive, and mostly unpublished; of some 4,300 closely typed pages of journals, Bailey says he is the tenth reader. He has used them thoroughly and intelligently; Cheever’s voice, sophisticated, addled, rumbustious, anecdotal, drawling, incisive, fills these pages. I look forward to a publisher who thinks the journals in their entirety would be worth bringing out; in the meantime, this biography could not have been done better.

Cheever got off to a bad start, and his mother while pregnant, not very enthusiastic about having a second son, invited an abortionist to dinner. Ever afterwards, Cheever was torn between boasting about his illustrious Yankee ancestry — ‘Remember you’re a Cheevah’, he would often tell his children — and groaning about it:

[Quincy] is now the most despicable, contrite tract of Dutch colonial houses I have ever seen. I’ve always wanted to go down there with a jug of firewater and a couple of sluts and raise a maypole.

Introduced to the pleasures of mutual masturbation by a boy with the gloriously WASP name of Fax Ogden, Cheever concentrated for the rest of his life on bad behaviour in public, going home afterwards to write much of it up. He got a lot of it from his father — there was ‘the time his father drank all the sherry and then tried to cover his tracks by pissing in the decanter’. His ancestors were good material — they certainly fill The Wapshot Chronicle in extremely crowded fashion. But the young Cheever made a habit of seeking out still more bizarre figures, one of whom, a pioneering gay-rights campaigner called Prescott Townsend, much later succeeded in the difficult task of shocking the young film director John Waters. ‘It was like living with a lunatic Swiss Family Robinson,’ Waters said. ‘Part of the apartment was made out of a submarine.’

The young Cheever had an ambivalent relationship with the underground gays of the time (‘Lennie, your mascara’s running’) and an entirely unambivalent relationship with drink. His wife’s fascinating family were both upright and shameless — ‘Your sweater is on backwards,’ Mary’s mother Polly told her, showing a nice sense of priorities, ‘and I hear you are living in sin.’ On the other hand, Polly, whom Cheever described as ‘one of those decorous and witty beauties whose familiarity with dope-addiction and cock-sucking was consummate’, had no illusions about her son-in-law, leering ‘Was your friend nice?’ when he returned from a morning’s healthy hiking with a chum.

The high spirits gradually subside, as Cheever’s magnificent career takes off and his drinking and rampant libido move onto an entirely different level. His family and style of life generated almost too much material, and he was sometimes reduced to committing acts of revenge in the margins of his narratives:

On his return [from Louis Fuller’s], Cheever promptly got to work on an early version of ‘Artemis, the Honest Well Digger,’ in which the title character has an affair with the wife of J. P. Filler, scholarly author of the best-selling monograph, Shit.’

I think almost all his very best things have the curious quality, as Nabokov said, admiringly, about the greatest of the stories, ‘The Country Husband’ ‘of there being a little too many things happening in it.’ That’s true of the three best novels as well, though he could certainly contrive a really elegantly classical narrative like ‘The Chaste Clarissa’, in which a terrible old roué discovers that the way to seduce a beautiful but dumb wife is to tell her how intelligent her opinions are (‘It was as simple as that’, it gloriously ends).

The excess of material, by the end of the 1960s, was not being helped by Cheever’s astonishing regime, turning to the cocktail cabinet some time before 11 a.m. Bailey remarks, very acutely, that his ‘gift (and curse) was an imagination that went on working no matter how drowned in alcohol’. It was a difficult one; many of Cheever’s most celebrated rhetorical swerves, such as the last line of ‘The Country Husband’, were probably written after a few drinks. Though I personally find Bullet Park entrancingly good, there’s no doubt that here is a novel written by an extremely drunk person. The idea of two neighbours, one called Hammer, the other Nailles, the final brilliant but unexplained attempt to crucify a teenage boy on an altar — these are ideas which stink of the 10 a.m. martini.

The middle parts of this biography are, very entertainingly, full of the bad behaviour and fits of revenge the literary drunk finds himself prey to. Whether having an appallingly public affair with the composer Ned Rorem at the artistic retreat Yaddo — ‘once they did it under the ping-pong table’, Bailey tolerantly notes — or insulting his family and children’s in-laws, he may be very amusing to read about, but can’t have been much fun to live with. He could not tolerate his family; he did not want to have any kind of relationship with a man, gruesomely observing that ‘it is one thing to tear off a merry piece behind the barn with the goatherd, but one wouldn’t, once your lump is blown, want to take it any further.’ By Christmas 1974, his family were watching aghast as he tried, without any success, to eat peas in the socially approved manner , using a fork. In the new year he checked himself into the drunkards’ facility, and never touched a drop again.

I simply can’t imagine a better literary biography than this one. Cheever’s family, including his long-suffering widow, have made it possible, but they have not modified it in any way. It is richly sympathetic, hugely well-informed, and, best of all, clearly sees what a very funny writer Cheever was, even at his most crapulous. Though long and detailed, it is completely absorbing, and it convinces one that the humiliating details of Cheever’s worst years are worth retelling, since he thought them so. I would be sorry if the terrible origins of some of the stories and the novels were found, by future generations, to disqualify them from serious consideration. For me, Cheever is unmatched in a crowded field; it is wonderful that he has been given a biography of this lasting quality.