email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""Who Could That Be at This Hour?"3 Willows4th of July99 DaysA Beautiful MindA Change in AltitudeA Corner Of The UniverseA Falling KnifeA Frog ThingA Great and Terrible BeautyA People's History of ChristianityA Question of BloodA Slight Trick of the MindA Step Toward FallingA Thousand Miles from NowhereA Tragic Kind of WonderfulA Voyage Long and StrangeA Wedding in December Abraham LincolnAcross the River and Into the TreesADHD NationAfter DarkAgainst EmpathyAgainst Medical AdviceAll the Bright PlacesAll the Way HomeAll Unquiet ThingsAlphavilleAlways Forever MaybeAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAmerica AmericaAmong the DepartedAn EducationAn Object of BeautyAnatomy of a MisfitAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAsymmetryBad BoyBad RatsBarbara the Slut and Other PeopleBeach RoadBeat the ReaperBeauty QueensBed of RosesBefore I DieBefore I FallBefore the FrostBig BrotherBiteBlack Elk SpeaksBlameBleed for MeBlonde FaithBlood, Salt, WaterBody SurfingBog ChildBoneMan's DaughtersBoomsdayBorder CrossingBorn Standing UpBoys Are DogsBoys Will Put You on a Pedestal (So They Can Look Up Your Skirt)Brava, ValentineBreak Through PainBreathingBridge of SighsBrief Interviews with Hideous MenBring Them HomeBrutalBy BloodC StreetCalm Beneath the WavesCanadaCellCemetery DanceChange Your Brain, Change Your LifeCheeverCinnamon KissCleopatraClose Your EyesCompulsionCross CountryCyborgasmDakotaDancing at the Shame PromDarkest FearDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDead EvenDead Little Mean GirlDear Zoe,Death Without TenureDeceptionDefending JacobDefine NormalDeliriumDevil in the DetailsDiscovering Pig MagicDisturbing GroundDivergentDivine JusticeDivisaderoDoing ItDon't Wake UpDown the Rabbit HoleDr. Andrew Weil's Mindbody ToolkitDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDriftlessEven Dogs in the WildEvery Exquisite ThingEvery Little Thing in the WorldEye ContactFaith, Hope, and Ivy JuneFaking NormalFalling ManFamily and Other CatastrophesFamily FirstFans of the Impossible LifeFear of the DarkFellsideField of BloodFile Under: 13 Suspicious IncidentsFiregirlFlat Lake in WinterForest of the PygmiesFortunate SonFraudFreak the MightyFree RefillsFull Steam Ahead!Furiously HappyGenerosityGenomeGetting a Good Night's SleepGetting the Love You Want Audio CompanionGiftedGirl in TranslationGod Is DeadGod Is Not OneGods and BeastsGoing BovineGood and GoneGranny Torrelli Makes SoupGraysonHappy FamilyHappy Mutant Baby PillsHarmlessHe's Just Not That Into YouHealthy AgingHeartbeatHeftHigh HeatHolidays on IceHot MilkHotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel WorldHotels of North AmericaHow a Gunman Says GoodbyeHow Full Is Your Bucket?How Successful People ThinkHow to Build a HouseHow to See Yourself As You Really AreHow to Set a Fire and WhyHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurt Go HappyHypnography for MenHypnography for WomenI Am I Am I AmI Am Not Joey PigzaI Can See YouI Drink for a ReasonI Feel Bad About My NeckI'd Know You AnywhereI'm Traveling AloneIdiot AmericaIf a Tree Falls at Lunch PeriodIf I StayIf You StayImagine Me GoneIn ZanesvilleInfinite JestInheritanceInnocentInside the O'BriensInvincibleInvisibleIt Takes OneJennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, ElizabethJust LifeKiss of Broken GlassKissing Ted Callahan (And Other Guys)Knife CreekLeaping BeautyLie to MeLies My Girlfriend Told MeLife After LifeLife InterruptedLife of PiLife StrategiesLisey's StoryLitLittle Black LiesLittle ScarletLive For Your Listening PleasureLiving Your DreamLong Shadow of Small GhostsLooking for BobowiczLosers BracketLost in the ForestLove Is a Mix TapeLove Times ThreeLove, AubreyLowboyMadappleMade for LoveMade For YouMagical ThinkingMagnificenceMaliceMan in the WoodsMarlenaMeditation in a New York MinuteMeetings with a Remarkable ManMiddlesexMind MappingMindfulness for BeginnersMirrorMaskMischlingMissing PresumedMolly Moon's Incredible Book of HypnotismMommies Who DrinkMunich AirportMy AbandonmentMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Name Is RedMy One Hundred AdventuresMy Sister's KeeperName All the AnimalsNelson Mandela's Favorite African FolktalesNemesisNever Let Me GoNew York 2140Night FilmNina: AdolescenceNinety DaysNone of the AboveNot a Crime to Be PoorNothingNurtureShockObjects of My AffectionOdd Child OutOh My GothOlive's OceanOn Chesil BeachOne Flew Over The Cuckoo's NestOutliersPaint It BlackPanicParadise LodgeParanoiaPeace Is Every BreathPeople Who Eat DarknessPharmakonPictures of Hollis WoodsPictures of YouPilgrim at Tinker CreekPlaying with FirePlease Stop Laughing at UsPositivityPresumed InnocentPretty Girl-13Prisoner of Night and FogPuddlejumpersPunkzillaPutneyRacing the DevilReady for AnythingRebuttalReleaseRequiemRescueRevolutionary RoadRoomRun for Your LifeSay You're SorryScatSchool of FearSearching for Sylvie LeeSeason to TasteSecrets of a Passionate MarriageSee How SmallSeeds of HopeSex and SpiritSide Effects May VarySilencedSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens AgendaSinlessSix Impossible ThingsSkelligSleeping BeautySleepyheadSnowSo Brave, Young and HandsomeSolitaireSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful to YouSourlandSquirrel Seeks ChipmunkStill in LoveStill MissingStory of a GirlStress ReliefSupreme CourtshipSurviving OpheliaSwimming to ElbaSworn to SilenceSycamoreSymptoms of Being HumanTeaseTeaseTell the Truth, Shame the DevilTen Minutes to RelaxTestimonyThat Old Cape MagicThe DrifterThe Abortionist's DaughterThe AccidentalThe Accidental BillionairesThe AdultsThe Almost MoonThe Anatomy of HopeThe ArrangementThe Art of ChoosingThe Art of Exceptional LivingThe Artist of DisappearanceThe Average American MarriageThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe Beat Goes OnThe Best AwfulThe Big LoveThe Boat RockerThe Book of JoeThe Book of LiesThe Book of the DeadThe Bookshop on the ShoreThe Boy at the KeyholeThe Boy Who DaredThe Boyfriend ListThe Brass VerdictThe Breakout PrincipleThe Burden of ProofThe Case for GodThe Case of the Case of Mistaken IdentityThe Cemetery BoysThe ChemistThe Chosen OneThe ClosersThe Consciousness PlagueThe Conspiracy ClubThe Cuckoo's CallingThe Dangerous Art of Blending InThe Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Dead Fathers ClubThe Death of Bunny MunroThe Devotion of Suspect XThe Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-BanksThe Diviner's TaleThe DollmakerThe Dressmaker of Khair KhanaThe Dynamite RoomThe Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round ThingsThe EndThe End of Our StoryThe Erotic EdgeThe Essential KamasutraThe Family GeneThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe Forgotten GirlsThe Fortunate OnesThe Geography of You and MeThe Gift of an Ordinary DayThe Gingerbread GirlThe Girl in 6EThe Girl in the GardenThe Girl on Mill StreetThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's NestThe Girl Who Played with FireThe Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Grief of OthersThe Grim GrottoThe Guise of AnotherThe Guy Not TakenThe Heart of YogaThe Hearts of MenThe Heretic's DaughterThe Ice QueenThe Ice TwinsThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe InseparablesThe InterestingsThe Keeper of Lost CausesThe Keeper of Lost ThingsThe Kings of LondonThe Language God TalksThe Language of SecretsThe Language Of YogaThe Last ChildThe Last MileThe Last Time We Say GoodbyeThe Male BrainThe Man from BeijingThe Man in My BasementThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Map of True PlacesThe Marriage PlotThe Memory Book The Mermaids SingingThe Ministry of Special CasesThe MuralistThe Museum of InnocenceThe Mystery of the Third LucretiaThe Myth of LazinessThe NarrowsThe Necessary Death of Lewis WinterThe New YorkersThe NewleywedsThe NixThe NursesThe Only Girl in the WorldThe Opposite of InvisibleThe Other Side of the StoryThe Outcasts of 19 Schuyler PlaceThe Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeThe PastThe Penultimate PerilThe Perfect GirlThe PostcardThe Pregnant WidowThe Promise of a LieThe PyramidThe Qi Healing KitThe Quiet RoomThe ReaderThe Republican BrainThe Rule of FourThe Rules of SurvivalThe Savage CityThe ScarecrowThe Second GirlThe Secret Life of BeesThe Secret of Lost ThingsThe Secret ScriptureThe Secret SpeechThe Secret Wisdom of the EarthThe ShallowsThe SharkThe Shock of the FallThe Silent BoyThe SisterThe Song of the Jade LilyThe Sound of Broken GlassThe SpindlersThe Story HourThe Story of Beautiful GirlThe Sudden Arrival of ViolenceThe Summer ChildrenThe Survivors ClubThe Sweet Relief of Missing ChildrenThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the PieThe Tail of Emily WindsnapThe Tenth JusticeThe Thing About JellyfishThe Third AngelThe TouristThe Treasure Map of BoysThe Trouble with Goats and SheepThe Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraThe Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia MossThe UnquietThe Unseen WorldThe VegetarianThe View from SaturdayThe WaveThe Weed That Strings the Hangman's BagThe Weight of the NationThe Whiz Mob and the Grenadine KidThe Whole TruthThe WilloughbysThe Witch ElmThe Witch's BoyThe Wolves of AndoverThe Words We Live ByThe Wrong Side of GoodbyeThe Year of the FloodThe Year That FollowsThe Yin Yoga KitThings You Didnt SeeThirteen Reasons WhyThis Beautiful LifeThis Body of DeathThis Book Is Not Good For YouThis Full HouseThis Is HowThose GirlsThose Who Wish Me DeadTony & SusanToo Much HappinessTooth and NailTouchTransformation TriburbiaTrue BelieverTrue CompassTrust ExerciseTruth & BeautyTwinmakerTwistedTwo Can PlayTwo Little Girls in BlueUnaccustomed EarthUnder Rose-Tainted SkiesUnder the HarrowUnder the InfluenceUnder WildwoodUniversal HarvesterUnlessUnthinkingUp in the AirVacuum in the DarkVery ValentineVisits from The Drowned GirlVoid MoonWaiting for SunriseWalkingWarWatching the DarkWays to Die in GlasgowWe Are OkayWhat the Dog SawWhen My Heart Joins the ThousandWhen We Were AnimalsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhen You Reach MeWhere She WentWherever You Go, There You AreWhite HotWild AwakeWild ChildWildwoodWill They Ever Trust Us Again?Wolf in White VanWomen's Murder Club Box SetYoga SanctuaryYou Know Me WellYou Look Different in Real LifeYou Should Have KnownYou Will Know Me
A friend reminded me that Coleridge says, "to understand a man's greatness, you have to understand his weakness." Recall that Paul Claudel was a misogynist, an anti-Semite and an Islamophobe. And that W. H. Auden wrote of him, in his "In Memory of W. B. Yeats":
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
That stanza echoed in my mind as I listened to the biography of John Cheever. Will we pardon Cheever for his mean-spiritedness, his alcoholism, his nasty treatment of family members, his unfaithfulness, his lies, etc. etc. -- pardon him because he writes well? I do not know, but after listening to this 28 hour biography (or reading the book) you will have to consider the puzzle of the relationship between the actor and the act, the dancer and the dance, the poet and the poem. As the Auden lines suggest we are more than willing to separate the agent from the act, to applaud the act in spite of the character and actions of the agent. We do so with celebrities of all sorts: actors, sports stars, writers, and even politicians. When I see Kobe Bryant sink a twenty foot pull-up shot with two defenders hanging on him, I can applaud the shot but detest the arrogance of the shooter. With the existentialists we want to say "you are what you do" and yet we are called upon to judge works of excellence even when those works are performed by less than savoury characters.
John Cheever (1912 - 1982), as we learn in this extensive and exhaustive biography, is one of those less than savoury characters, one who writes with power, control, and sensitivity, while living a life that makes it easy to dislike him as a person incapable of self-discipline and devoid of human kindness. Blake Bailey had an agreement with the Cheever estate that allows him to present a wide array of information which comes from psychiatrist's notes, extensive letters, interviews with family members, and the unpublished journals of the long time New Yorker short story writer, and novelist. Bailey explains in an interview: "We had a written agreement that was drawn up by the Wylie Agency, which handles Cheever's estate. It stated that the family could not cooperate with anyone else for ten years or whenever my book was finished, whichever came first. And they had to provide me with all materials they had: letters, manuscripts, photographs, etc. And they could not make any input of an interpretive nature. They could vet the manuscript for factual stuff---that didn't happen in 1962, it happened in 1961--that sort of thing. As a result the biography is "A triumph of thorough research and unblinkered appraisal." [Source]
Cheever, known as the "Chekhov of the suburbs", walked toward the grave exhibiting every human weakness as an alcoholic, a raconteur, a bi-sexual philanderer hiding in the closet for much of his life, a person who admits he is "lonely and lost." Narcissistic, self-absorbed, deceptive, and disarmingly charming, Cheever spent a lifetime crafting a haughty persona and fighting his baser instincts. In search of a socially acceptable "sanctuary for [his] cock", he married Mary Winternitz and spent the rest of his life craving divorce. He never failed to let his children know they disappointed him. "I love you not for the person you are," he told his son Ben, "but for your possibilities." He seems constantly to nag his daughter about her weight. His appetite for approval was insatiable and he manifested insecurity. A complete egotist, Cheever, the man, is an example of the idea that an egotist is not a person with a huge ego, but a person lacking an ego.
Bailey emphasizes the gap between the man and his work, the man and his idea of himself, the man and his public persona complete with a phony accent, and the agent and the artist. Listening to the audio book gives one a sense of that accent as Hilgartner reads each Cheever quote with a special accent thus setting it off from the text. Like his fictional characters, John Cheever did not fit the image he so scrupulously cultivated. "In the morning," his daughter, Susan, wrote, "my father would put on his one good suit and his gray felt hat and ride down in the elevator with the other men on their way to the office. From the lobby he would walk down to the basement, to the windowless storage room that came with our apartment. That was where he worked. There, he hung up the suit and hat and wrote all morning in his boxer shorts, typing away at his portable Underwood set up on the folding table. At lunchtime he would put the suit back on and ride up in the elevator."
Bailey's book is a testament to Cheever's complex and convoluted life, and presents an exhaustive and honest picture of one of the twentieth century's important short story writers, who in his lifetime, published over one hundred twenty stories in the New Yorker. John Cheever, the inventive story teller, created a character: John Cheever the author, father, husband, and bi-sexual. As Cheever wrote, "I have been a storyteller since the beginning of my life, rearranging facts in order to make them more significant. I have improvised a background for myself--genteel, traditional--and it is generally accepted."--John Cheever, in his journal, 1961.
The Blackstone audio book is well produced, the reading professional, and the material always stimulating. All of the "damningly candid" sexual material from the Cheever journals is just boring. As his son Ben wrote, "He was at his best on the page."
Readers may enjoy watching Dick Cavett interview John Updike and John Cheever, courtesy of the New York Times.
© 2010 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.