The “someone you thank for the party”

One of the pitfalls of reviewing a biography is that of finding oneself reviewing the life and not the work of the biographer. In the case of Cheever this danger looms especially large because John Cheever was a wreck of a human being from beginning to end. His voluminous journals were filled with what his own daughter described as “the gloomy, relentless sexual stuff” topped with a thick icing of self pity. It’s material that is so depressing it makes Sylvia Plath’s journals a comparative lark.

Yet Blake Bailey turns the life story of a drunken, depressive, self-loathing, verbally abusive and deeply closeted man into a compellingly readable, life-affirming book. Bailey not only makes the creative process interesting, he keeps Cheever from turning into so vile a being that the reader can’t bear another page of him.
He also gives us the story of Cheever’s times, evoking the lifestyles of Westchester suburbanites so vividly that I found myself looking around my home county looking for the places and people Bailey (& Cheever) described. I’m glad I didn’t meet any of them behind the wheel, however, since this was one hard drinking crew, drinking themselves into oblivion at least once a week like a bunch of frat boys. The fact that any of them is a) alive and b) in possession of their factory issued liver is nothing short of a miracle.

On the other hand, reading about Cheever’s personal relationships made me want to drink. When he’s not being heinous to his wife and children he’s writing in his journal about his genitals. Which is impressive since he’s impotent for large swathes of the book. The short version is that Cheever was gay (or bi) and didn’t want to be. It’s not as simple as that, of course, but after a few decades I got the feeling that even Anita Bryant would have beseeched him to just be gay already. Sympathy for Cheever is hard to come by when he’s so homophobic himself.

The final years of Cheever’s life saw him accepting (to a degree) his own nature. Not that his relationships with his lovers were any more humane than those with girlfriends, wife and children. His relationship with Max Zimmer actually made me nauseous on occasion. Oblivious to Zimmer’s own feelings or desires, Cheever wrecks his life with nary a twinge of regret.

So where’s the life affirming part, you ask. In the day to day details with which Bailey builds his narrative. It’s most apparent in the final chapters when Cheever’s long suffering family rallies around him in death. Their loves and forgiveness along with Bailey’s clear-eyed and compassionate view of his subject elevate this tale far beyond any individual sordid detail.

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