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Cheever: A Life

A new biography illuminates both John Cheever’s gifts and his struggles.

By Matt Shaer / March 9, 2009



In the summer of 1934, the novelist John Cheever left the cozy confines of the writer’s colony at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and moved into a tenement on Hudson Street, in Manhattan – a neighborhood then so rough-hewed that Walker Evans, a friend of Cheever’s, eventually photographed the 22-year-old’s dingy flat for a series on Depression-era destitution.

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Every week, John’s brother, Fred, would send him a tenner through the post, three of which went to rent; some to stale bread, milk, and raisins; and whatever was left to typewriter ribbon.

A few years earlier, Cheever managed to offload a single story to the New Republic, which had won him the welcome attention of a prominent editor named Malcolm Cowley. He had arrived in New York determined to write a novel, which he viewed – correctly, it turned out – as essential to his professional development. Still, the writing came slowly, and on bad days, Cheever would sit in Washington Square Park, wondering how long it might take a man to starve.

He became a fixture at uptown literary parties, where he would quaff Manhattans until he was hopelessly drunk.

“Sobriety seemed out of the question,” Blake Bailey reports in Cheever: A Life, his expansive, wonderfully written biography of this brilliant yet deeply troubled man. Bailey quotes one of Cheever’s first girlfriends, who remembered that the young writer, “simply never faced himself, and when he did he didn’t like what he saw. And nothing relieved him.”

This last statement is not entirely accurate. Cheever had two sources of respite.

One was sex, an activity at which he was endlessly – and enthusiastically – profligate. He slept with editors, writers, married women, and, at least once, Walker Evans. Sometimes Cheever’s escapades sent him spiraling into melancholy – the “megrims,” he called them – but more often they served to take his mind off the grimier aspects of quotidian existence.

His other great pursuit, of course, was writing, a craft he viewed with equal parts reverence and fear. Writing was a way to expurgate at least some of the demons he’d collected from a young age.

And yet, if Cheever knew he was meant to write, the very act itself often proved violently agonizing. There was salvation in fiction, he believed, but it was hell to get there. Cheever, who published “Falconer,” perhaps the greatest novel of the late 20th century, lived a life marred by the most savage emotional trauma.

The heir to one of the storied names in New England history, Cheever’s parents, Frederick and Mary, managed to fritter away most of their money and sunk into a very public ignominy John would never forget. Although he often affected a lordly Yankee air, Cheever left his hometown of Quincy, Mass., early on and returned only twice, Bailey notes, once for his brother’s funeral, “and once for his own.”

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