John Cheever: The Chekhov of the Suburbs
Almost the last thing John Updike published was a review of Blake Bailey's new biography, Cheever: A Life, about Updike's friend, John Cheever. It appeared in The New Yorker six weeks after his death and seemed to be a warning from the grave, so ambivalent is Updike's tone concerning this writer's life, which had often overlapped with his own. It is not Cheever's bisexual complications which distressed him, or the financial struggles made more intricate by Cheever's aspirations to haute waspdom, but the persistent querulous note of unhappiness, of Cheever's not getting much satisfaction from his tremendous talent, that bothered Updike most.
Is Bailey, the biographer, to be blamed for this sense of a life lived as a patch-up job? Readers of an earlier biography by Scott Donaldson won't exactly be diving after it, nor will those who have read the Selected Letters. The problem, from the semi-latent voyeuristic perspective which every reader brings to a biography, is that he didn't melt down flamboyantly enough to be legendary, like Fitzgerald, or shoot himself, like Hemingway, or land in a mental ward in Sao Paolo, like Robert Lowell. He had to dry out repeatedly, and his sex life is a study in passing awareness, but he would not crash and burn - not entirely - not as long as he could feather his nest. The letters have
a pseudo-stoical, falsely wry ulterior quality that would be a mercy to forget. But for every writer like Chekhov who is lovable in their letters, there are dozens who aren't, including many of the big guns.
Cheever is something of an in-joke, just now, thanks to a running gag in Seinfeld, which is a bit rich coming from a source which gives petty narcissism full scope, and too bad considering his relevance. The economic wildfire now running through the suburbs is found in his stories of fifty years back – the houses under foreclosure, the sudden dismissals, the last chance hinging on some deus ex machina, the marital spats, the packed bags. He might be prescient. Or it might just be "deja vu all over again,” in the words of Yogi Berra. Few writers were more aware that the house was an anaconda, and the dream an advertisement, which makes the fact that he bought he bought the package himself all the more poignant. He put a business suit on to go down the elevator at exactly 8:30 to the basement floor of his apartment building where he typed on a card table by the boiler room.
He saw it so clearly--why didn't he know better? Because the American dream is not something which can be seceded from without instantly entering cult membership elsewhere; cult membership or solitary poverty on some extreme promontory. Those are the options. Also because, like every prophet, however minor, he must preach through the holes in his own raiment.
The writing itself always makes me circumspect about any wisecrack I might make about him, for so much of it is downright good. Good like the word which slams the nail on the head, good enough to envy. Based on the high proportion of times he gets exactly the right word in exactly the right place, I'd say he was a happy man. “Goodbye,” “My Brother,” “The Enormous Radio,” “Torch Song,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” “The Country Husband,” “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow,” and “The Swimmer” are usually said to be his top drawer, but a dozen more are up there, and none are duds; all have his combination of gimlet eye with tendresse.
It has become an unhappy convention to downgrade the novels, but a good many works of the last forty years have borrowed shamelessly from him - those rollicking steamboat gothic novels by people named John, those postmodernist revenges on the picket-fence era of Booth Tarkington, those absurdist takes on the suburbs, those shifting gears from the mode of the realist to the fabulist, smoothly or noisily as the case maybe, all owe him something as all used him as a tuning fork in one way or another, much as most American playwrights practice their scales, consciously or not, on Tennessee Williams' dialogue. Those who sharpened their pens against him learned to sharpen their pens from him; he was a much maligned influence. People would say, dismissively, "O a Cheever novel (or story)" in the much same aggrieved accents as members of the Politburo complaining about Chekhov's irrelevance to the Five Year Plan.
I still remember the Wapshot novels fondly, as creaking apparatuses. Bullet Park and Falconer can be pleasurably reread. But O What A Paradise It Seems is as perfect in its way as Candide or Alice in Wonderland or the Mozart clarinet viola piano trio are in theirs.
As for editions, the big red Collected Stories is the book to go with, and O What a Paradise It Seems in paperback. The Library of America has recently issued the Collected Stories and Collected Novels in companion volumes, but their format, with onionskin paper and a silk ribbon marker, seems especially unfortunate for one of the few first-rate writers who can be read in the bath-tub.