- The Washington Times - Monday, May 25, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BOOK REVIEW:

A LIFE
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.

Not that there is not lots of entertaining detail about the life of a man whose success was so largely owing to his ambiguous relationship with middle-class morality. The point is to avoid the trap, which Mr. Bailey does not always avoid, of a facile hunt for petty hypocrisies. Mr. Cheever himself does not always avoid it in his fiction, but in life, he seems to have had a much larger range of sympathy with his neighbors’ as well as his own weaknesses.

I particularly liked his explanation of his lifelong habit of religious worship (Anglican-Episcopal): “There has to be someone you thank for the party.” That very upper-middle-class, Anglo-American connection between good manners and the secrets of what Douglas Adams used to call “Life, the universe and everything” is no less striking for coming from someone who was so often, particularly under the influence of strong drink, himself unmannerly and even boorish.

Perhaps the ultimate test of true Cheeverism, if there is such a thing, is what ironic force one is inclined to give to the concluding passage of “Bullet Park” and, in particular the assurance that after a crisis, “everything was as wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful as it had been.” Here’s what Mr. Bailey says about it:

“Now, if this be irony - and four “wonderful’s” would seem to suggest as much - then we must surmise that life is not wonderful in Bullet Park and never was, and besides, Eliot Nailles still needs to take tranquilizers just to get through the day. So nothing has changed; but if that’s true, then what’s the point of the whole triumphant rescue? What, for that matter, is the point of the novel?”

The problem here is too limited and mechanical an understanding of the way irony works. Yes, the wonderfuls certainly suggest irony, but irony does not mean life is not wonderful in Bullet Park, only that one has to be aware of its wonderfulness in its natural context of not-wonderfulness.

All irony, in this sense, is an example of the “negative capability” that John Keats attributed to William Shakespeare, “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

The same is true of Mr. Cheever himself, who was both wonderfully charming and charmingly (at least at more than a quarter of a century’s distance) horrible at the same time. That as much of this contradictory doubleness comes across as it does is a tribute to Mr. Bailey’s biography even though it leaves us wishing for more.

James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of “Honor: A History” and “Media Madness,” both published by Encounter Books.

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