Over the course of two unwieldy books, A Tragic Honesty: the Life and Work of Richard Yates and now Cheever: a Life, Blake Bailey has established himself as the most diligent biographer around. Martin Stannard, in his recent biography of Muriel Spark, enlightened readers with the knowledge that Spark's sometime lover and collaborator Derek Stanford tended to wear a "canary-coloured waistcoat"; John Carey in his recent biography of William Golding reported that during a cricket match played on 21 June 1939, the man who wrote Lord of the Flies bowled "respectable leg-breaks". Bailey's punctiliousness beats all comers.
In his fetish for the footling and the footnote, and his indiscriminate enthusiasm for trivia, he resembles the biographer in Auden's sonnet "Who's Who", an anorak-figure amply informative on how his subject performed household chores ("with skill/And nothing else") and keen to deliver the news that he "would sit still/Or potter round the garden" and "could whistle". But Bailey's habits, occasionally tiring in the Yates book, are ideally suited to John Cheever, whose 70-year life (1912-82) demands a biographer with skills as a detective, a cross-examiner and a filer. It is a job that comes with heavy secretarial duties.
The book's most entertaining passage is an annotation of Cheever's account of a run-in with William Maxwell, his editor at the New Yorker. In square brackets after almost every sentence, Bailey explains how Cheever tweaked the details - sometimes more than tweaked them - to position himself in a kinder light.
Bailey has undertaken the task of reading the 4,000 pages of Cheever's journal and his copious correspondence, together with the memoirs and reminiscences of family members; he has had to sort through, and pronounce judgement on, the various testimonies and tall tales pertaining to Cheever's lifelong homosexuality. One of the job's few perks is that Cheever was also much written about by Saul Bellow and John Updike, the sweetest prose stylists in postwar American literature.
Like Yates, Cheever was a drunkard perennially insecure about his position and his powers (and like Frank Wheeler, the hero of Yates's novel Revolutionary Road, he lived on Bethune Street in Greenwich Village as a young man - a rare missed connection on Bailey's part). Yates and Cheever were victims of what Updike's novelist-hero Henry Bech - who later dismissed both Cheever and Updike as "suburbanites" - called the American writer's oppression: "the silken mechanism whereby America reduces her writers to imbecility and cozenage". Cheever did a terrific job of reducing himself to imbecility, smoking two or three packets of cigarettes every day for 50 years and occasionally out-drinking the writer Frederick Exley, whose name, Bailey writes in a photo caption, "was virtually synonymous with alcoholism".
The successful literary biography is an exercise in self-negation. It is constantly telling the reader that the work is more important than the life. When Bailey is recounting the details of a forgotten writers' conference, it is clear that he takes the events of Cheever's life seriously, and not only for what they might reveal about the work (in most cases, very little).
But as well as being an exhaustive elegy for Cheever the man, the book is a plaint against the neglect of his fiction, particularly its neglect by academics. And, of course, there are connections to be drawn and comparisons to be made between what writers say and do and what they write. I like the idea that the lofty mentor figure who advised a young friend, "Don't write like Beckett", was also the author of this display of plainly phrased, single-clause desolation, not quoted by Bailey: "Nothing seems very acute or significant. The day is overcast. It looks like snow. John Updike has gone to Africa. My marriage is in the dumps. I drink vodka for breakfast."
Cheever's miserable life ended more than quarter of a century ago. The pain of it is gone (at least for him), but the work remains. "Angst in the suburbs", says a character in Jay McInerney's novel Brightness Falls - a brisk summary of Cheever's fiction, though not an entirely accurate one. Cheever also wrote about angst in the city and angst in the country.
Bailey makes much of Cheever's failings as a novelist, and while it is true that his garlanded early novels - The Wapshot ("Warpshart") Chronicle (1957), The Wapshot Scandal (1964), and Bullet Park (1969) - are testing, the two later books are very powerful. Falconer (1977), a tale of addiction and redemption in a New York prison, may have occasioned excessive enthusiasm, but the last novella, Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982), is as eloquently rueful an account of dashed American hopes as Revolutionary Road and Updike's Rabbit is Rich.
But it is finally a matter of little relevance whether America's Chekhov cut it as a novelist. Cheever's Collected Stories is a towering achievement, evoking a world of cocktails and regrets, of greying parents and crying children - a world for which the description "long-suffering" might have been invented. Cheever has often been compared to other documenters of the affluent east coast, but in his insider's portrayals of closed communities, as in his mastery of the exacting generalisation and the fine-grained caricature, his mixture of cruelty and forgiveness, and his continual selection of les mots justes, he resembles no writer so much as Jane Austen.
Cheever appears to have derived no pleasure at all from being the author of these marvellous stories; but then the writer occupies a thankless position in American life. The best he can hope for is acceptance. In 1978, Cheever became a celebrity after Robert Gottlieb, his editor at Knopf, published a hefty collection of his stories. Shortly before he died, he was awarded the National Medal for Literature, and toasted at the ceremony (by William Styron) as "a lord of the language". Afterwards, oblivion.
Henry Bech, expanding on the idea of “oppression", described the American writer veering "between the harlotry of the lecture platform and the torture of the writing desk", only to be rewarded with "a standing crowd of rueful Lilliputian obituaries" - or, in Cheever's case, the handsome but probably fruitless compliment of one Brobdingnagian biography. l
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction critic.
Cheever: a Life
Picador, 770pp, £25
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