Lives and Legacies: Biographies of 2009
Torres, Justin, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
Biography, Virginia Woolf once observed, is the search for the fertile fact. The four best biographies of 2009 each approach doorstop size--which suggests that, for these authors, there's a lot of fertility in the facts. They aren't stocking stuffers, but, if you're looking for a Christmas present to give this year, any of these four books will delight the serious reader.
Blake Bailey, the author of Cheerer: A Life (Knopf, 770 pages, $35), has more than a few fertile facts to work with. John Cheever--the midcentury novelist and author of more than 150 short smiles--was selfish, unstable, alcoholic, narcissistic, sexually compulsive, and a rotten father. Nothing new there; writers are not typically known for their successful lives. What surprises is the almost obsessive contemplation of these personal failures in this biography. At times it transcends the tell-all and veers into voyeurism.
Certainly, one can't fault Bailey's research. The book is impressively sourced, drawing extensively on Cheever's journals, and Bailey writes with real insight about Cheerer's fiction. Few fiction writers better captured postwar American suburbia than Cheever, with discontent bubbling beneath the grassy lawns. Fifty years later, it's easy to roll one's eyes at the genre: story after story about suburban WASPs indulging themselves in ennui and drink. But the economy and grace of Cheever's best work, especially the short stories, will delight and surprise cynics. One hopes that this biography will reawaken interest in a writer who has made a slow fade from the reading lists.
The danger is that it will awaken mere titillation. Cheever was a mean drunk, driven early to the bottle by a shabby-genteel mother who ignored him and a father--suspecting he had sired "a fruit"--who never wanted him in the first place. In one particularly harrowing incident, Cheever's father invited an abortionist to the family home weeks before baby John was born, hoping his wife would take the hint.
The story haunted Cheever his whole life and was a running theme in his late novel Falconer. Yet a drunken Cheever would later scream at his own son Ben, an effeminate boy who loved bubble baths, "Who do you think you are, a screen actress?" By the time he reached his forties, Cheever lubricated his writing with early-morning gin, and by his fifties he was gulping cheap wine on the street with the homeless--though never in an overcoat, since his father had told him that overcoats made you look declasse and, worse, Irish.
Cheever was also a compulsive philanderer who--while outwardly married--carried on affairs with both sexes. It is difficult to separate fact from self-pity or self-aggrandizement when it comes to Cheever's sexual activities, and Bailey flatly admits that Cheever edited his own journals; though whether it was to make them more or less sensational is unclear. (For example, Cheever hints at an affair with his own brother, which Bailey considers unlikely.) But Cheever was an active, if self-loathing, homosexual whose tastes tended toward prisoners and other rough trade, and Bailey spares few details. The book is at its best in its portrayal of a man who, even while being praised as one of the greatest living American writers, was swamped by loneliness and despair.
Flannery O'Connor predicted, "There won't be any biographies of me," since "lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." In the half century since her death, it seemed as if she might be right. Few novelists have had as profound an influence on American literature on so slim an output, which makes the lack of a definitive biography surprising. Brad Gooch's Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor (Little, Brown, 464 pages, $30) seeks to rectify the oversight.
Gooch assumes (and here he has an enormous advantage over Bailey, whose subject few contemporary readers are familiar with) that the reader of …
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Publication information: Article title: Lives and Legacies: Biographies of 2009. Contributors: Torres, Justin - Author. Magazine title: First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. Issue: 198 Publication date: December 2009. Page number: 17+. © 2009 Institute on Religion and Public Life. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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