The publication of a great writer’s collected works should be a cause for celebration, and or at least a measured reassessment. How disturbing, then, that the Library of America’s two-volume publication of John Cheever’s stories and novels has also been cause for reluctant admiration, backhanded compliments, outright dismissal, petty personal attacks, and disingenuous exclamations of surprise of how little this important writer matters anymore. As though the reporters “reporting” how little Cheever matters anymore have nothing at all to do with creating the sense that Cheever doesn’t really matter anymore.
These reporters (who are sometimes reporters masquerading as book critics, and sometimes book critics masquerading as reporters) are wrong: Cheever does matter: he’s one of the greatest twentieth century American fiction writers, and one of the three (along with Flannery O’Connor and Donald Barthelme) most important American short story writers of the same period. This is a fact. It’s a fact because I say it’s a fact, and so you should accept it as such, in the same way you’re supposed to accept it as a fact when biographer Blake Bailey claims in his Cheever: A Life that “Cheever is hardly taught in the classroom,” and then when a “reporter” like Malcolm Jones in Newsweek quotes Bailey claiming it without bothering to ask apparently anyone if Bailey is right. Likewise when Charles McGrath claims in the New York Times Magazine that Cheever “is for the most part not on the syllabus,” we’re supposed to accept this as a fact, rather than wonder, “Whose syllabi have you seen, exactly? Is Cheever really not taught in the classroom anymore?” Because he is, at least by me. That is also a fact, among other facts.
If it sounds as though I’m angry, it’s because I am. Although not necessarily at Blake Bailey. True, many (although not all: Bret Anthony Johnston, Geoffrey Wolff, and the late John Updike have all used this occasion to, if not praise the biography, than to celebrate Cheever’s work and call for our return to it) of the recent “reassessments” of Cheever are really just slightly queasy, prurient plot summaries of Bailey’s new biography. If Bailey hadn’t written the biography, then perhaps some of the reassessors would focus more on the fiction than on the life. But then again, Bailey has edited both Library of America volumes, and it is impossible for me to be mad at him for that, just as it’s impossible for me to be mad at him for writing and publishing his biography, especially since I haven’t read it and have no plans to read it.
Let me make this clear: Bailey has every right to publish this biography, just as Cheever’s family has every right to approve of its publication, just as they had every right to publish Cheever’s journals a decade or so ago, just as Cheever’s daughter Susan Cheever had every right to publish a memoir about her father a decade or so before that. Just as they have every right not to give a damn whether or not I say they have a right to do anything they want when it comes to their family, their lives, their stories. It sounds as though they’ve had difficult pasts, and they have the right to do anything they want with them, including profit from them financially. Just as I have every right to not read any of the above-mentioned volumes, while still maintaining the right to hold forth about Cheever’s fiction, and how much it matters. And it does matter, much more than Bailey’s biography: I can claim this with authority, even though I haven’t, as I mentioned, actually read the book, and even though some of the recent reassessments of Cheever make it seem otherwise. McGrath quotes Bailey in defense of his biography: “’The Joyce Carol Oates notion of “pathography”—the idea that one should not place an unseemly emphasis on the private of lives of biographical subjects’—that’s nonsense, Bailey said, or a word to that effect.” Well, it’s not bullshit, which I assume is the word to that effect. A biography might be a necessary part of one’s appreciation of a general or a queen or a labor organizer, whose claim to significance, whose work, is not already on the page. But a biography is not a necessary part of one’s appreciation of a writer’s work; in fact, a biography may actually hinder one’s appreciation of a writer’s work.
And this is why I refuse to read Bailey’s biography: because if some of the recent magazine and newspaper pieces on Cheever are any proof, then reading Bailey’s biography immediately turns some readers of said biography into preening, judgmental, condescending assholes who, in not properly executing their reportorial or critical duties, reveal far more about their own limitations than they do about Cheever’s.
Take, for example, Jones’s March 9, 2009 Newsweek piece, “Suburban Stall.” Feel free to save your annoyance over the lame title, for there will be lameness aplenty ahead. Try to ignore the obvious schadenfreude when Jones predicts, “I doubt…that the Library of America volumes will have anything like the impact of the publication of the collected stories, which…sold more than 120,000 copies in hardcover”; try also not to wonder, rhetorically, if the 120,000 copies sold of the previous Stories of—plus the thousands and thousands sold in paperback—might not automatically cut down on the readers who might not want to buy another hardback book full of stories they mostly already own. Restrain yourself from pointing out, after Jones asks, “Why should Cheever suffer eclipse while an author such as the late Richard Yates enjoys a renaissance?” that Richard Yates’s “renaissance” can be attributed almost wholly to the fact that someone has just made a movie starring famous actors and actresses out of one of Yates’s novels. Save your outrage for when Jones admits that, after reading Cheever: A Life, “mostly I just wished that Cheever hadn’t been such an alcoholic bore.” Such a careful, measured, critical response to a fellow human being’s troubled life story deserves a response in kind: Fuck you. Because in that one sentence, in which Jones attacks the subject of the biography rather than the biography itself; in which rather than criticizing the biographer for either choosing such a boring subject or making him boring, Jones chooses to–viciously, snidely–wish that the subject of the biography—who did not ask to be the subject of this biography, by the way, no matter how many journal entries he wrote, no matter how many veiled hints he dropped that maybe, someday, he wouldn’t mind if the journals were published—did not have a terrible disease that had made him boring, Jones has abdicated his responsibility as a writer and therefore we’re free to respond likewise, without decorum. So let me repeat: Fuck you. I seriously hope, Malcolm Jones, that Blake Bailey’s next project is to write a biography of your life. I wonder, at the end of reading that book, if we’ll find out you’re a bore. I wonder, at the end of reading that book, if we’ll wish you had drank more, or that we had.
But this is not the worst of it. The worst of it is Jones’s sense of fiction’s relationship with the real world. The real world—as it pertains to Cheever, as far as Jones is concerned–is New York’s Westchester County, where Cheever lived and where Jones lives. This latter fact—that Jones lives in Westchester County, the real one–is significant because it establishes Jones’s bona fides, because Jones believes it gives him authority when he writes, “When I tell people where I live, they often say, ‘Oh, Cheever country.’ I just nod, because the truth would take too long. The short version is no, I don’t, because Cheever country doesn’t exist any longer.” Forget, for the moment, that Jones has already claimed that Cheever doesn’t really matter anymore, even though he then admits that people immediately associate a part of New York State with him. Forget, for the moment, the nauseatingly world-weary tone of the local authority who has to yet again tell readers not to confuse fact with fiction, even though this local authority is supposed to be a book critic whose life is enriched by those who complicate the distinction between fact and fiction. No, what’s especially infuriating and disheartening about all this is Jones’s subsequent claim that, “For that matter, the world Cheever describes may never have existed quite as he wrote about it,” and then goes on to show how the men who populated Cheever’s stories—wealthy commuters–were not really like Cheever—who was not wealthy or a commuter–at all. To this, the sensitive—perhaps over-sensitive–reader is allowed to respond in this fashion: What? Is this not the point of fiction: not to replicate the world, but to create a distorted version of the world by which readers can be entertained, transformed, provoked, educated in a way they cannot do with the real world because they are too busy living in it? Is this not the fundamental purpose and premise of fiction, no matter what kind of fiction? It is tempting to blame Bailey’s biography for all this: because clearly Jones has read Cheever’s fiction as the biographical information has compelled him to, instead of reading the fiction as fiction. But no: that is not Bailey’s fault. It is not Bailey’s fault when Jones complains that in his fiction Cheever “drags [his characters] through the mud because mud is all he knows.” There is mud: Bailey’s biography makes that clear; one knows that without having to read the biography itself. But it is Jones’s fault that he sees the mud in Bailey’s biography, in Cheever’s life, and superimposes it on Cheever’s fiction–where there is also mud, for sure, but, to overwork the metaphor, it exists primarily so that out of it something surprising and beautiful might grow. Jones, unforgivably, ignores this fact. Because it is a fact. It is a fact because I say it’s one: because I’ve read the stories and not the biography, and I can see the proper function of mud in Cheever’s fiction, and Jones has read the fiction and the biography and cannot, evidently. Later on, Jones tells us “Cheever is and is not a great writer.” But given what comes before this (confusing) proclamation, it is impossible to trust Jones’s literary judgment at all. The smart reader is tempted to run away screaming away from Jones. And while the smart reader is running, the smart reader might be tempted to run—not to Bailey’s biography, at least not at first, but back to Cheever, or to Cheever for the first time, to see what all the fuss is about. And the smart reader should give in to that temptation.
It is a thrill to re-read Cheever’s work—no less a thrill the twentieth time than the second. But how I envy the first time reader of Cheever! Especially the first-time reader of Cheever who has some vague, dismissive sense of him as a bard of the suburban upper middle class, the quaint scribe for the post-war New Yorker set. What a treat to discover the formal variety of Cheever’s fiction: the allegory, the fable, domestic realism, bildungsroman, metafiction, the ghost story, and best of all, all or some of these forms within the same story, the same novel. What an eye-opener when you come to his work expecting only Westchester County and also get New England, Italy, Egypt, and maximum security penitentiaries. What a feeling when you do get Westchester County and expect to find quaintness and instead find in, say, “O Youth and Beauty!” the story of a former high school athlete and drunken hurdler of furniture shot by his wife in midair. What a moment, when you encounter the brutal, pitiless matter-of-fact last lines of that story—“The pistol went off and Louise got him in midair. She shot him dead”—and then try to reconcile that with the mostly un-ironic celebration and lament of the life that lead to the shooting just a half page earlier (“Oh, those suburban Sunday nights, those Sunday-night blues! Those departing weekend guests, those stale cocktails, those half-dead flowers, those trips to Harmon to catch the Century, those postmortems and pickup summers!”) What a moment, when you realize that this disorientation and these mixed feelings are precisely the point—not just of Cheever’s fiction but perhaps of any fiction. What an epiphany when the reader realizes that there is no quaintness in the world of the story, that the only quaintness in the story is the quaintness you, the reader, brought with you, the quaintness the story kills off without killing off you, its carrier. What a feeling to have your all preconceptions proved so wrong!
What a disappointment, then, to not be able to talk about all the fiction—the best stories (“Goodbye, My Brother,” “The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well,” “The Jewels of the Cabots,” “The Seaside Houses,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” “The Country Husband,” The Swimmer,” “The Scarlet Moving Van”); the strangest, most beautiful novel (Bullet Park); the fondest, most loving novel (The Wapshot Chronicle). But there is too much great fiction, and one must focus on one thing in order give one a chance to do all of it justice, and so I’ll focus on “The Cure.” “The Cure” is Cheever’s greatest story, which is to say it’s my favorite, that it’s meant the most to me a reader and a writer (to the point where I’ve echoed its ending in one of my own stories—by “echoed” I mean aped–just as I’ve echoed his use of exclamation points in this essay). Jones claims that Cheever is “a great and not a great writer.” I have no idea what he means by that. But this is what I mean when I say something is great: I mean not that it’s objectively great, but that I love it best. And “The Cure” is Cheever’s greatest story. That is yet another fact.
“The Cure” is what one might call—with derision or pleasure, depending upon the “one”–a typical Cheever story. Its narrator is a white businessman; he lives in the suburbs and commutes (by train) into the city; he has marital problems; he drinks too much. Those are the details, not the facts, of the story—“details” being the things you need to mention and get out of the way before moving on to what really matters in the story, which begins like so: “This happened in the summer.”
I’ve read this story dozens of times, and I confess: I still get the chills from this simplest, most artful of sentences. The promise of doom in the “this,” the knowledge that something has “happened” and yet we don’t yet know what it is, the comfort of knowing that whatever “this” is, it will, in some fashion, be over by the end of the season. In other words, the first sentence makes promises, so that the reader will read on to see if the rest of the story can deliver what’s been promised. Onto the rest of the first paragraph, then, in which we learn that the narrator’s wife, Rachel, and their three children have left him, that this is not the first time they’ve left him, that the narrator assumes this separation is final, and that he’s not entirely sorry about it: “She had left me twice before…and I watched her go each time with a feeling that was far from happy, but also with that renewal of self-respect, of nerve, that seems to be the reward for accepting a painful truth.” The narrator then tells us he’s glad it’s summer, because “it seemed to spare us both the immediate necessity of legalizing our separation…I guessed that she was content, as I was, to let things ride until September or October.”
I love the false sense of contentedness here, the feeling of self-congratulation, the cheery notion that divorce, like medicine, might be distasteful but will eventually end up making you feel better. But I love most that the attentive reader knows that while the narrator and Rachel might be content to “let things ride,” Cheever is not. We know this because in the second paragraph there are already “a few minor symptoms of domestic disorder”: namely, the cat and dog run away and the maid gets drunk, tells the narrator that her husband has left her: “She wept. She got down on her knees. That scene, with the two of us alone in a house unnaturally empty of women and children on a summer evening, was grotesque, and it is this kind of grotesqueness, I know, that can destroy your resolution.”
Here, then, is Jones’s “mud”: that Cheever won’t allow his characters to get on with their lives, that he has to give them a hinted-at sullied history (that sly, marvelous “I know”), that he has to put this poor drunk maid in the narrator’s path. The mistake, I think, is to regard this as mean-spiritedness (Jones claims that Cheever “begrudges his characters happiness out of stinginess or envy”) rather than a dramatic device. Because what good is a story—as opposed to a life, I suppose–if you give your characters what they want, especially if they don’t deserve it? Especially characters like the narrator, who manages to get the maid out of the house, and then gives us this piece of advice:
You cure yourself of a romantic, carnal, and disastrous marriage, I decided, and like any addict in the throes of a cure, you must be exaggeratedly careful of every step you take. I decided not to answer the telephone, because I knew that Rachel might repent, and I knew, by then, the size and the nature of the things that could bring us together. If it rained for five days, if one of the children had a passing fever, if she got some sad news in a letter—anything like this might be enough to put her on the telephone, and I did not want to be tempted to resume a relationship that had been so miserable. The first months will be like a cure, I thought, and I scheduled my time with this in mind.
Another fact: this is a remarkable passage. Remarkable for the direct address, which the narrator uses to establish his authority and which quickly disappears, which lets the reader know he is meant to resist self-help advice from someone who is trying so mightily, and still failing, to help himself; remarkable for the calmness of the voice which just barely succeeds (for the time being) in keeping at bay the panic everywhere under the surface; remarkable for the planting of Rachel’s phone call (Jones says that Cheever “was certainly no Chekhov,” but here, in the phone call, is the contemporary version of Chekhov’s gun that, as Chekhov tells every writer who came after him, had better go off or else…what? Or else you’ll be bludgeoned again with the truism about what Chekhov said about the gun); remarkable for the bald statement of purpose (“The first months will be like a cure”); and most remarkable for the way in which this narrator should be unlikable—for his know-it-allness, for the way he wants to put his family out of his mind and life, for that way he lies to himself—and yet he isn’t. He isn’t unlikable because, as Cheever suggests at the beginning at the story and then throughout, we lie to others and ourselves not because we are necessarily bad people, but because we want the lies to turn our life into the kind of life worth living. He isn’t unlikable, because we know that the missing dogs and cats, the drunken, jilted maid, are just the beginning of what Cheever will put his man through before the end of the story, when Rachel calls and the narrator answers the phone. He isn’t unlikable because the world he lives in is so full of terrors and (compromised) rewards that the narrator is animated and transformed just by living in it. In the real world he’d be a sad sack; in the magical world of Cheever’s fiction, he’ll do anything not to be one.
I wouldn’t use the adjective “magical” (so corny, so redolent of Disney and Doug Henning) if it weren’t the best one available to describe the world of the “The Cure,” especially if our definition of “magical” is capacious enough to allow it to include its opposite, or antidote. For example, as part of the narrator’s attempt to keep busy and away from home and the telephone, he goes straight from work to the train station, and then straight from the train station to Orpheo’s, “where there was usually someone there to talk to, and [where] I’d drink a couple of martinis and eat a steak,” and then straight from there to the Stonybrook Drive-In Theatre, where the narrator “sit[s] through a double feature.” I’m convinced these names, these places—the Orpheo, the Stonybrook Drive-In Theatre—were as magical seeming and sounding when Cheever wrote “The Cure” as they are to us now. Because for us they function as a dream world, a hazy reminder of what we’ve lost and maybe never had in the first place, and for the narrator of “The Cure” they function in the very same way. The places are magical, but the people who inhabit them are human, the same way the Gingerbread House was magical, but the children who entered it were not. The difference being the children were innocent, but the narrator of “The Cure” is not. All the better, as far as I’m concerned. Cheever’s sad account of Orpheo’s and the Stonybrook—the narrator says there’s only “usually someone there to talk to” (emphasis added) at Orpheo’s and he “sits through a double feature” but doesn’t enjoy it—isn’t a debunking of the suburbs (there is nothing as dull as a debunking) or of anything else, but rather a depiction of what happens when we bring our problems to the places we love but that can’t cure our problems and shouldn’t be expected to. And when that happens, the only where we have left to go is home.
And home, in Cheever’s stories, is where we have a hard time sleeping at night. Two things happen when Cheever’s protagonists can’t sleep: they listen to weather and modes of transportation (there is no better bard of insomnia and rain and train travel than Cheever, another fact this passage from “The Cure” makes evident: “It was after four then, and I lay in the dark, listening to the rain and to the morning trains coming through. They come from Buffalo and Chicago and the Far West, through Albany and down along the river in the early morning, and at one time or another I’ve traveled on most of them, and I lay in the dark thinking about the polar air in the Pullman cars and the smell of nightclothes and the taste of dining-car water and the way it feels to end a day in Cleveland or Chicago and begin another in New York”) or they get up out of bed. The narrator of the “The Cure” gets out of bed, goes into the living room, picks up one of his wife’s books (by Lin Yutang—and what a wry bit of scene and era setting this is! And how excellent that Cheever chooses not to celebrate or satirize the book, the era, the milieu, but instead understatedly says “The book seemed interesting” just as the “living room is comfortable”) until, “I heard, very close to me, a footstep and a cough…I felt my flesh get hard—you know that feeling—but I didn’t look up…and yet, without lifting my eyes from the book, I knew not only that I was being watched but that I was being watched from the picture window at the end of the living room….I looked up [and] saw him, all right, and I think he meant me to; he was grinning.”
And then suddenly the story becomes a different kind of story, which is one of the things I most love about Cheever: how he will tell you it is one kind of fiction ( “This happened in the summer” is the way one might begin a ghost story) and then coerces you into thinking it’s another kind of fiction altogether (the realistic tale of suburban sadness and ennui) only to then remind you that perhaps you’ve forgotten his original promise, but he hasn’t, and he won’t let you forget it, either (“you know the feeling”) nor will he allow his narrator to forget it. Although the narrator does try mightily to forget: he doesn’t chase after the man at the window. Instead, he turns off the light until dawn, then goes to work, then goes to Orpheo’s and the movies, after which tries to go sleep, and when he can’t, he gets up and reads Lin Yutang. Notice the use of pattern and repetition in Cheever (for Cheever, pattern and repetition are often synonymous with plot) and also pay close attention his use of talismans. Too many critics pay fetishistic attention to these objects, as though Cheever is using them as, say, the television show Mad Men uses gray flannel suits and cocktails. Cheever’s talismans aren’t period costumes or identifiers; rather, they’re dear objects that nonetheless fail to keep horror at bay, just as the Lin Yutang fails to keep the narrator of “The Cure” from looking up and seeing the Peeping Tom’s “face in the narrow window above the piano. ‘Get the hell away from here!’ I yelled. ‘She’s gone! Rachel’s gone! There is nothing to see! Leave me alone!’”
Yet another fact: it is impossible to keep one’s spine from tingling during the reading of that passage. It tingles not because Tom (as the narrator calls him) is so terrifying, but because the narrator goes from yelling the generic and expected, “Get the hell away from here!” to the unexpected and specific, “She’s gone! Rachel’s gone!” See: I felt the chill again, just typing those sentences. Because again Cheever has artfully mis- and then re-directed us: we pay attention to Tom, when we should be paying attention to the narrator, to what he’s trying to stop himself from feeling and thinking and saying. This is testament not to our limitations as readers, but to Cheever’s expert misdirection. But once the narrator shouts out, “She’s gone! Rachel’s gone!” we are reminded, for good, of what’s at stake in the story, to the point where the reader is tempted to wonder if Tom isn’t the narrator’s visible version of the audible Tell Tale Heart: a manifestation of psychic terror rather than something objectively real.
He isn’t; he is. The narrator discovers this a few mornings later at the train station: “Then I saw my man. It was simple as that. He was waiting on the platform for the eight-ten with the rest of us, but he wasn’t any stranger…It was Herbert Marston, who lives in the big yellow house on Blenhollow Road. If there had been any question in my mind, it would have been answered by the way he looked when he saw that I recognized him. He looked frightened and guilty. I started across the platform to speak to him…Then I stopped, because I saw he was not alone. He was with his wife and his daughter.” This scene comes halfway through the story, and what a terrible moment for the narrator, and what a wonderful moment for the reader. Because we both realize the same thing: that there will be no easy answers or epiphanies or confrontations in the story. The narrator admits as much after he physically describes the family, who, despite their problems, are at least together, are at least seemingly happy: “I had wanted to know who Tom was, but now that I knew, I didn’t feel any better. The graying man and the beautiful girl and the woman, standing together, made me feel worse.”
This is a wonderful moment for the reader not because the reader is sadistic, but because the reader realizes he is in the hands of a writer who denies the reader what the reader shouldn’t want in the first place. If the reader wants the story to solve the mystery of Tom, then Cheever will solve it all right, but he denies the reader the easy pleasure usually involved in the solving of a mystery. Because once Herbert Marston is revealed, the most serious mystery remains: if the narrator’s mess survives the unmasking of Tom, then how will the narrator survive the mess? It should be said that Cheever isn’t any more sadistic in creating the mess than the reader is in enjoying it: because no matter what Jones says, Cheever is one our most empathetic writers. He doesn’t mock the narrator’s self-deception, any more than he mocks the way the reader is so easily distracted by Tom. Because if the problem is severe enough, then of course we want to deceive ourselves; of course we’d allow ourselves to be distracted from it. But we should celebrate the writer who doesn’t allow us easy victories, who empathizes with our wanting things we shouldn’t want while still refusing to give them to us. Should we have any doubt about him refusing us, Cheever dispels it soon after the scene at the train station, when the narrator goes to a party. What the narrator wants at the party is “a pretty girl in new shoes, but it looked as if all the pretty girls had stayed at the shore.” Instead, the narrator gets a beautiful woman his own age, Grace Harris, who gives him a “sad, sad look,” and says, “You poor boy…I see a rope around your neck.”
The reader won’t be surprised, then, that when the narrator tries to fall asleep that night, he sees a hangman’s noose, in addition to seeing Mr. Marston outside his window. He burns all the rope in the house, but that doesn’t make the visions of it go away, anymore than the booze or the trains or the rain or the Lin Yutang has gotten rid of Mr. Marston. Things become so terrible for the narrator that he realizes that “nothing now was going to save me,” and the despair is so deeply felt and artfully rendered that the reader despairingly wonders, despite Cheever’s light touch, if he really might allow something awful to happen to his narrator. In the end he doesn’t, and how he doesn’t is worth quoting in full before talking about why he doesn’t:
I took a train home, but I was too tired to go to Orpheo’s and then sit through a movie. I drove from the station to the house and put the car in the garage. From there I heard the telephone ringing, and I waited in the garden until the ringing had stopped. As soon as I stepped into the living room, I noticed on the wall some dirty handprints that had been made by the children before they went away. They were near the baseboard and I had to get down on my knees to kiss them.
Then I sat in the living room for a long time. I fell asleep, and when I woke it was late: all the other houses were dark. I turned on a light. Peeping Tom would be putting on his slippers and his bathrobe…to begin his prowl through the backyards and gardens… I got down the Lin Yutang and began to read. I heard the Bartstows’ dog barking. The telephone began to ring.
‘Oh, my darling!’ I shouted when I heard Rachel’s voice. ‘Oh, my darling! Oh, my darling!’ She was crying. She was at Seal Harbor. It had rained for a week, and Tobey had a temperature of a hundred and four. ‘I’ll leave now,’ I said. ‘I’ll drive all night. I’ll be there tomorrow. I’ll get there in the morning. Oh, my darling!’
That was all. It was all over. I packed a bag and turned off the icebox and drove all night. We’ve been happy ever since. So far as I know, Mr. Marston has never stood outside our house in the dark, although I’ve seen him often enough at the station platform and at the country club. His daughter Lydia is going to be married next month, and his sallow wife was recently cited by one of the national charities for her good words. Everyone here is well.
Well, we know, or suspect that everyone there is not well, not really, which is one of the reasons this passage is so beautiful, so satisfying. It acts as a release valve for the story’s terrible tension, while reminding the reader that the valve hasn’t done anything to fix the source of the tension. Another way of putting it is that we know that all is not well, but we also know that the narrator wants to believe it is. He wants to have hope, and after what he’s been through, this hope isn’t self-deception, except insofar as all hope requires a fair amount of self-deception. Cheever has done something remarkably generous here: he has made hope so difficult for his characters not because he wants to drag them through the mud, but so that whatever hope remaining for them at the end of the story actually means something.
I’ve been talking mostly about readers so far, about what they might gain from reading and reading Cheever’s work, without or without the influence of Blake Bailey’s new biography. The same holds true of fiction writers. How much we have to learn from “The Cure”—about scene setting and genre bending, about voice, about pacing, about pattern and repetition, about empathy, about the inner lives of our characters, about how their milieu might gesture toward their inner lives without us wanting or allowing that milieu to stand for or be the entirety of those inner lives—and from the rest of Cheever’s stories and novels. How much so many of us have already learned from reading and studying those stories and novels.
Except that Charles McGrath in his March 1, 2009 New York Times Magazine piece, “The First Suburbanite,” says we have not: “The problem, perhaps, is that Cheever…doesn’t lead anywhere…he’s not an ‘influence,’ except possibly on a writer like Rick Moody.” Unlike Jones, McGrath gets a good deal right about Cheever in his essay: he manages to keep what he learns in the biography from tarnishing what he sees and admires in Cheever’s fiction; he pays attention to the actual stories and novels even as he pays attention to the life; he seems less willing to dismiss Cheever’s importance simply by virtue of his recent sales record. So let’s say, for the moment, that McGrath is right about Cheever’s influence, too: let’s say that Cheever hasn’t influenced contemporary fiction writers the way, say, Faulkner, Hemingway, O’Connor, Fitzgerald, Saul Bellow, and others have. But might this be the fault of contemporary fiction writers, and not Cheever? Might we simply not be up to the standard that Cheever has set for us? Might we (so far) be incapable of doing what McGrath himself said that Cheever did in writing his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle: “he succeeded only by reinventing the novel form for himself” (Oh, that “only”! If only more writers could accomplish something so “only” as reinventing the novel form!). If McGrath is right in claiming there aren’t any followers of Cheever, maybe the fault lies not in Cheever, but in ourselves.
All that said, McGrath is not right: Cheever does lead to other writers. McGrath doesn’t see them because he’s not looking in the right places. When he identifies Rick Moody as the only carrier of the Cheever torch, he means, simply, that Moody has set much of his fiction in Cheeverland. But is setting the only gauge of literary influence and commonality? What about sensibility? What about Cheever’s great contemporaries and near contemporaries—Bellow, O’Connor, Barthelme, Walker Percy, Grace Paley—whose work, like Cheever’s, could be surprisingly experimental, or surprisingly traditional, depending upon the tastes and the expectations of the reader? What about Frederick Exley, whose boozy, articulate, self-wounded, self-deprecating, self-mythologizing alter ego in A Fan’s Notes owes a great debt to so many of Cheever’s conflicted men, from the tender yet rage-filled narrator of “Goodbye, My Brother” to the violent yet redemptive protagonist of Falconer? What about Russell Banks, whose now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t first-person narrator in his novel Affliction is surely reminiscent of Cheever’s first-person-narrator-as-product-of-authorial-will of “The Jewels of the Cabots”? What about Lorrie Moore, whose smart and smart-ass protagonists obviously resemble Cheever’s own as they both court and resist tragedy and disaster? What about Lee K. Abbott, one of our greatest contemporary short story writers, and, of the writers listed here, the one most mostly clearly influenced by Cheever, even though his work is set in New Mexico and Ohio instead of in Westchester County? What about Padgett Powell, whose novels and stories, like Cheever’s, push against and challenge certain traditional narrative forms without dismissing the forms and the traditions altogether? What about the new generation of fabulists—writers like Judy Budnitz, Aimee Bender, and Kelly Link—whose work, like Cheever’s, treats sometimes-familiar settings in fantastical ways? Is this not an impressive enough group of writers for McGrath, or for anyone else? Who would not want to be included in such a list, as part of such a legacy? Who would not want to be considered a literary child of John Cheever? I would. And that is another fact, one that is probably obvious to whomever is reading this essay.
Of course, the risk (for me) here is that one could ask these writers if Cheever influenced them, and they might say “No.” But this is what happens when you love people: you see them everywhere. I see Cheever everywhere, which is why you should listen to me when I tell you to read his work, even though I’ve never lived in a Massachusetts coastal town. Even though I’ve never lived in the suburbs of New York, or the suburbs of anywhere. Even though I never met Cheever, nor have I met any of his family, although I spoke with Susan Cheever on the phone once, and she was unbelievably pleasant to me, especially given she had several reasons not to be. Even though I am heterosexual, not bisexual or homosexual. Even though I am not an alcoholic. Even though I have not read Blake Bailey’s biography of Cheever, or Scott Donaldson’s earlier biography. Even though I have not read Cheever’s journals. Given all that, what can I possibly add to this discussion of John Cheever? I have read his fiction. I love his fiction. If you read it, you will love it, too. This is this essay’s final fact, a “fact” being an opinion or hope that has the transformative force of love behind it.
Because all of this, of course, is the familiar cry of someone in love. When you are in love, you want people to know you’re in love, because you want them to recognize the beauty of the beloved and ignore the things about the beloved that aren’t so beautiful. Admittedly, you also want them to think, if this guy is in love with someone who is obviously so worthy of love, then maybe there’s something worth loving in him as well. But mostly, you want them to love the person or thing you love. Not because it reflects well upon you if they do, but because the beloved deserves to be loved. The beloved has earned it.