Triumph over Chaos: A Profile of John Cheever

By Simon, Linda | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Triumph over Chaos: A Profile of John Cheever

Simon, Linda, The World and I

When Cheever died in 1982, he left a rich legacy of five novels (including The Wapshot Chronicle, Bullet Park, and Falconer) and seven volumes of short stories. His last collection, The Stories of John Cheever, earned him a Pulitzer Prize, an American Book Award, and a National book Critics Circle Award. For nearly fifty years he had published steadily -- in the New Republic, the Saturday Evening Post, and most frequently in the New Yorker. To many readers, he seemed to be that magazine's quintessential voice: wry, sophisticated, the kind of writer who knew what people drank when they vacationed in Italy, what they wore to their country club in Westchester, and which train they took to their posh offices in Manhattan. But he knew more: about their nostalgia for the simplicity of his imaginary "St. Botolphs," a small Massachusetts town where Norman Rockwell or Thornton Wilder might have lived. He knew that his readers awoke to the morning sunshine, surrounded by family, dog, and blooming forsythia, beset by an abiding fear that something was terribly, terribly wrong. Where am I, they asked? Who am I?

Although these questions surely transcend the concerns of white, upper-middle-class men (the typical Cheever hero, one critic said, was the "fuddled, sincere male"), some critics found Cheever's landscape--and perspective--limited. Cheever himself wondered if his stories were not "too breezy. They were deeply felt at the time," he reflected, "but there seems to be a lack of deep notes; no bass clef; a lack of fundamentals." Late in his career, when he read a short-story anthology from which he had been excluded, he decided that the editors were right. "The tone of the stories chosen--most them excellent--is much more substantial and correct than my flighty, eccentric, and sometimes bitter work, with its social disenchantments, somersaults, and sudden rains. I do see why some people describe my characters as weird." His detractors agreed: What, they asked, did Cheever have to say to those whose pressing problems do not include firing the cook who drinks too much or renting a summer house at the shore?

Of all Cheever's fictions, perhaps the most flighty and eccentric was the story he told about his own life. He invented a "genteel, traditional" tale of a boy brought up by defiantly quirky Yankees. His father had owned a shoe factory, he said, and once a year he brought his young son John to blow the noon whistle. His parents had sent him to prep school, from which he had gotten himself expelled, intentionally, for smoking. Yet except for that incident--hardly a blight on his character--it had been a wonderful life. There were maids to serve dinner, vast lawns on which to cavort in the summer sun, sailboats in the bay: money, comfort, ease, love. As a successful writer, he enhanced the image. Appearances meant everything to him: cashmere coats, kid gloves, even a walking stick; the requisite dogs frolicked on his estate in Ossining, New York; his wife was beautiful, intelligent, a poet; they had three charming children who went to Brearley and Andover, Brown and Stanford.

On the surface--and surface was everything--Cheever was a blessed man. If a story seemed weak, if he suddenly withdrew from a teaching position, if he looked pale, exhausted, and bloated at a reading, he claimed illness, or others claimed it for him. Not until the late 1970s did one truth emerge: Cheever was not the "boozy recluse" he advertised, but a man with a serious drinking problem. The love of gin that he flaunted as proof of his manliness was part of an "addictive disposition" that also led him to abuse such drugs as valium. Although Cheever repeated to every interviewer that "fiction is not crypto-autobiography," readers began to see how alcoholism and addiction underlay the plight of many of his characters.

Within two years of his death, it became clear that alcoholism was not an isolated source of pain. The image of a charming, debonair Cheever with his attractive, loving family was shattered by his daughter's memoir of life with father. …

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