- The Washington Times - Monday, May 25, 2009




By Blake Bailey
Knopf, $35, 774 pages
Reviewed by James Bowman

Although I haven’t gone back and counted them, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that of the words used to characterize John Cheever in Blake Bailey’s new biography of the man who liked to be called “America’s Chekhov,” “charm” and “charming” would be among the most frequently occurring.

On the opening page, Mr. Bailey quotes Malcolm Cowley as saying, “John had nothing but friends.”

Yet, for all its virtues of readability, thoroughness and understanding of its subject, this biography’s portrait of Mr. Cheever is not characterized by its charm.

Rather the reverse, in fact. If my own experience is any basis for judgment, readers are likely to find the portrait more repellent than charming. Mr. Cheever emerges as needy, self-pitying, monstrously selfish, cold and even cruel to family and friends - and at times as a predatory homosexual.

That’s not even counting the decades during which he was a sloppy alcoholic and a frequent embarrassment to those who loved him.

Yet it is hardly possible for a man to have enjoyed the success and esteem Mr. Cheever did without the charm that Mr. Bailey, Mr. Cowley and many others insist he had. Why do we not see more of this in his biography?

I think the answer must have to do with Mr. Bailey’s choice, natural though it is, to base his work heavily on Mr. Cheever’s voluminous journals. He proudly asserts that he is one of probably just 10 people in the world who have read every one of their 4,300-odd pages - now available for public perusal at the Houghton Library at Harvard University, though only a small portion of them have been published - and he is understandably eager to share with his readers the secrets he has gleaned from them.

Yet this decision gives the journals a weight they probably don’t deserve. Mr. Bailey’s assumption has been in keeping with the assumptions of our therapeutic culture, namely, that the thoughts of his subject’s heart, recorded in the journals, are somehow truer than the testimony of his novels or public utterances or even than what is reported about him by those who knew him.

Of course, it helps that these reports are pretty obviously dominated by the more than 20 interviews Mr. Bailey had with the author’s widow, Mary, who was far from a disinterested witness. She seems to have been quite happy to concur with Mr. Bailey’s acceptance of the lugubrious, self-pitying journal-John as being the real Mr. Cheever.

On this model, charm and good manners, which Mr. Cheever must have possessed in abundance - at least when he was relatively sober - are mere surface matters and of little interest when compared to the secrets he naturally reserved (for the most part) to his journal.

Yet what if the charming, public Mr. Cheever - that kinder and better Mr. Cheever that he must have grown accustomed to superimposing, for appearances’ sake and when he was sober enough to do so, upon the night terrors recorded in journals written in the privacy of his study. What if that was the real Mr. Cheever?

It also is true that, thanks mostly to drink, he certainly gave a lot of the people to whom he was closest in life - including his wife and children - a very close acquaintance with his noncharming side. This is true even though, for the last five years of his life - he died of cancer at 70, in 1982 - he was sober.

There is, to be sure, no definitive way of deciding between Mr. Bailey’s therapeutic assumptions and those of bland suburban convention, but at least in the case of an author whose claim to biographization rests so heavily on his skill at dealing in bland suburban convention, the latter might at least have been tried.

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