three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
Blake Bailey
user_rating: 
0

A Life

A-CheeverBlake Bailey recently edited the Library of America anthologies of Cheever’s short stories and novels. His most recent book was a biography of the novelist Richard Yates.

The Topic: Many secrets about the writer John Cheever (1912–1982) came to light in the decades following his death, some through early biographies, others through his daughter’s memoir. The revelations about his alcoholism and dalliances with both men and women became so notorious that they inspired a bit on Seinfeld. But there was still much more to learn, as Cheever left thousands of pages of journals, only a small section of which had been published or explored by researchers. Drawing upon this material and extensive interviews with the author’s family, Blake Bailey has produced a biography that aims both to provide a comprehensive account of Cheever’s life and to restore his place in American letters, if not his personal reputation.
Knopf. 782 pages. $35. ISBN: 1400043948

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[Bailey] seems to me as good an interpreter of Cheever’s stories and novels as I have read. … Bailey’s interweaving of Cheever’s fiction with his experience—his mystical obsession with water, the changing seasons and the night sky—is a tour de force, a rare instance of fiction being deepened by its biographical circumstance." Geoffrey Wolff

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[S]urely definitive. … Bailey, working with the cooperation of Cheever’s wife and three children, was given the run of 4,000 pages of the writer’s journals. In their combination of hijinks, sexual and alcoholic confession, fantasy, and self-lacerating reflections, they give us as real a John Cheever as we could desire." William H. Pritchard

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s true that Cheever: A Life is a hard and bracing read, and that Bailey is indeed unstinting in his depictions of Cheever’s travails. And yet, all that darkness helps pull the genius—‘the sparkling of the creative moments,’ as Updike has it—into relief. To read Bailey on Cheever is to arrive at a much fuller appreciation of a deeply gifted chronicler of American life." Matt Shaer

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Cheever should receive a much-needed accounting with the publication of a sympathetic and deeply engaging biography by Blake Bailey. … The book is also a portrait of the 20th century: the Great Depression, when Cheever’s lack of formal education kept him from finding work and his sometime lover Walker Evans photographed his Greenwich Village bedroom as an example of hardscrabble tenement living; the postwar blossoming of the American suburb; jousting with Mailer on a stage in Berkeley; and junkets to the Soviet Union." Jacob Molyneux

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"My advice: Read the work first before immersing yourself in the complex miseries and ecstasies of the man behind it. That said, Bailey has done a near-perfect job of making the connections between the man and his masterpieces." Michael Upchurch

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Susan Salter Reynolds

USA Today 3 of 5 Stars
"Fueled by an excess of well-intentioned zeal, Bailey appears to have detailed virtually every sexual encounter, every hangover, every rebuff that Cheever (1912–82) experienced during his 70 years on earth. By the end, the joyless minutiae of Cheever’s personal life swamps the book, drowning his career as a writer." Deirdre Donahue

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"Bailey’s intention seems to be to show how art transcends and improves upon life, but the result is a biography that constantly teeters at the edge of sensation and voyeurism. … Readers who savor literary gossip may think that all this stuff makes Cheever: A Life a juicy romp, but caveat lector: It doesn’t. It’s as messy as the life it describes." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

Most critics felt that Blake Bailey’s book was an admirable work of scholarship and approved of his task of encouraging people to read Cheever again. But they disagreed about the extent to which Cheever succeeds as a literary biography. A few reviewers thought that Bailey had done an incomparable job of integrating the details of the man’s life with his work. Others, however, opined that the book’s exhaustive detail gives readers almost no insight into Cheever the author. Most assessments were more balanced, noting that while Bailey’s research was very thorough, the reason we’re ultimately interested in this man is due to his fiction, not his failings.

Where to Start

There are two new collections from the Library of America—one of Cheever’s novels and the other of his stories. Start with his stories; if you don’t want to pay the hardcover price for this new collection, The Stories of John Cheever is available in paperback. Those prone to flip randomly through the book could start with "The Enormous Radio."