Cheever: restless, clever novelist

John Cheever, by Scott Donaldson. New York: Random House. 416 pp. $22.50. However witty, clever, and sometimes devilishly funny they are, John Cheever's stories and novels convey a sense of unmitigated loneliness, a sense that however much we try, we cannot really connect with other lives and fully understand another's suffering. ``In their restless rootlessness,'' Scott Donaldson writes, discussing Cheever's ``Bullet Park,'' ``his characters die in rapid transit.''

It was this restless rootlessness that characterized Cheever's life, too. Despite his marriage, his three children, his disciplined devotion to writing, he seems always to have been headed out, looking for a way of escape - through alcohol or sex - from the apparently bourgeois life that he chose for himself. Friends and acquaintances believed he was a witty raconteur, an optimistic spirit who loved nothing more than a good party. But as Donaldson shows us again and again, Cheever had a dark and unreachable side that threatened always to undermine him, and often did.

This biography, as responsible and competent as it is, will not compete with Susan Cheever's ``Home Before Dark'' as a vital portrait of the writer. But where Cheever's daughter intended a memoir, Donaldson, who has written about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, has set out to bring together as much information about Cheever as was available to him. This is not to say that the biography is a vast, unselective compendium; Donaldson integrates his material - from interviews, letters, and Cheever's published works - seamlessly to produce a well-written narrative on the writer's life. It is illuminating and always interesting, even as we read about Cheever's increasingly serious alcoholism and his deteriorating marriage.

``John Cheever grew up at risk,'' Donaldson concludes, because he was convinced that he was not loved. ``His parents never paid much attention to him,'' Cheever's wife later concurred, and Cheever never lost his sense of emotional vulnerability. His long marriage to Mary Cheever was threatened by innumerable infidelities as Cheever seemed to seek some ideal partner to meet his needs. When he chose women, they were, Donaldson notes, invariably sleek, blond, and fashionable - the actress Hope Lange is the prototype. His male consorts were devoted young men, usually aspiring writers.

Cheever was tortured by his bisexuality, but it was not the sole cause of recurring depression. In other ways, as well, Donaldson asserts, Cheever was ``divided.'' He was, on the surface, the perfect gentleman: ``He was the sort of person you would sit next to the dreadful aunt or boring sister-in-law at dinner,'' a friend of his recalled.

But beneath, he was a rebellious Bohemian who wanted nothing more than to shock society. He claimed to love living in suburbia, yet he spent much time at an artists' retreat. He was a private man, reluctant to disclose his inner self, even to the many psychiatrists he consulted to help him through his depressions; and yet he seems genuinely to have loved being with people, all kinds of people.

Cheever's amiability and wit sometimes deflect Donaldson from working harder to analyze motives behind Cheever's behavior. In 1971, Cheever began teaching a class at Sing Sing, for no apparent reason - at least not apparent to us here. ``He decided to teach at Sing Sing, he said, because someone at a party had said there were two thousand prisoners and only six teachers. Besides, `it was closer than Princeton.''' Why, we are left to wonder, did he really do it? He was not planning, then, to write about prisons - although later ``Falconer'' explored that world. Was he influenced by his children's involvement in social and political causes? Perhaps Donaldson could have enlightened us.

And what about his relationship with his wife? We are allowed to see the marriage only as it deteriorated, but more information on Cheever's early relationship with Mary might help us to understand the later antagonism, Mary's boundless loyalty, and Cheever's repeated efforts to destroy the union.

Still, despite Donaldson's frequent reliance on Cheever's own witty explanations of himself, he has given us the first comprehensive biography of one of the most marvelously inventive minds in contemporary literature. ``Radiant'' is the way John Updike described his friend, and then added, ``but it's more like the little star inside a snowball on a sunny day.'' There is something of that radiance conveyed in ``John Cheever,'' but the little stars of course are in ``The Wapshot Chronicle'' or ``The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.''

Linda Simon teaches writing at Harvard University.

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