Some writers went on the road; others went to Paris or fought in a war. John Cheever (1912-1982) went to Westchester, New York, where he cultivated his own exclusive patch of the Northeast Corridor. His outward appearance--a bit rumpled, collar frayed, every inch the squire of suburbia--oozed WASP gentility. Cheever did rumpled preppy long before rumpled preppy was cool. Ever the showman, he posed with horses for PR photos, talked in a patrician drawl so thick he made Thurston Howell III seem down-to-earth, lived in a rambling country house, and wrote bittersweet stories set on Manhattan's East Side and in the commuter towns north of the city. A generous portion of that fiction will endure, even if his rank as a novelist is today uncertain. He took delight in seeming a respectable, churchgoing family man and reveled in being a hearty's hearty, whether scything grass, chopping wood, playing touch football (a favorite pastime), or diving into icy pools. It all seemed like vigor, pep, and good times.
This image, carefully fixed by Cheever himself, began dissolving with the publication of Falconer (1977), a prison novel of shocking force and lurid sexuality that awed many of his admirers and hinted at some kind of personal liberation. Its rapturous treatment of homoerotic desire and its horrific passages on addiction suggested Cheever was publicly owning up to something--and, in many ways, he was. In 1991, the publication of The Journals of John Cheever laid bare a life of prodigious drinking, infidelity, marital strife, lust, impotence, and agonized bisexuality. "The most wonderful thing about life seems to be that we hardly tap our potential for self-destruction," mused Cheever, who did his best to refute his own proposition. (Among other things, the Journals are an essential document in the history of alcoholism.) In this private record, Cheever emerges a man beset by a welter of repression, resentments, and infinite reservoirs of despair. ("Shaken with liquor, self-doubts dimmed slightly by a Miltown, I board the nine o'clock. I am in misery. Every man on the train seems richer, more virile and intelligent than I.") There are bursts of his trademark lyricism, filled with the pleasure he took in observing the natural world--"the smell of burning holly and hemlock is like a vital perfume of life"--but for every small portion of joy, there is a greater share of desolation.
In his hefty biography Cheever: A Life, Blake Bailey brings these disclosures further out of the shadows, training the megawatt glare of the authorized life onto Cheever's agonies and indiscretions. The prospect we are offered is a bleak one. If Cheever brought a zest and professionalism to the craft of the short story--the New Yorker style owes much to his efforts--he became positively consumed with creating the persona "John Cheever," a vocation that brought him fame and accolades but very nearly extinguished him. An artist who lived among businessmen, a man who loved men but hated homosexuality, a loving father who found it difficult to discharge the duties of fatherhood, a short-story sprinter who struggled over the long distances required of the novelist, Cheever took out a mortgage on a life he could never repay.
The author of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates (2003), Bailey has become something of a specialist in the lives of alcoholic practitioners of suburban realism, and it's only fitting he has moved on to one of the founding fathers of the genre (the other being a fellow New Yorker contributor, the much-denigrated John O'Hara). Cheever, however, is a greater writer than Yates and a more complex case. Bailey had access to every bit of Cheeveriana he could locate, including the vastness of the complete journals (only a selection was published in 1991), which run to forty-three hundred pages. The Journals are a master-work unto themselves and provide a road map to the author's origins.
Cheever's ambivalence about his New England Protestant roots tugged at him. …