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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Blake Bailey's "Cheever: A Life"

"The Stories of John Cheever" was one of the few books I was able to read and really enjoy for non-work/research fun last year.  Of course I knew of the Blake Bailey biography of Cheever and the bombastic literary acclaim it got the moment it hit the critics' circles, and that is the reason I decided to read it during this short holiday.  The acclaim is much deserved, as it is perhaps one of the most excellently written and most informative biography of any author in the last decade or so.  This is no hyperbole, to be sure, and I hope that my constant disagreements with the same critics who praised "Cheever: A Life" serve as testament that I approached the volume with an open mind and the clear idea that I wanted to learn as much as possible from Bailey's treatment of John Cheever, who is quickly becoming one of my top five favorite authors of all time.

Blake Bailey's style is described as "addictively readable" by Anthony Johnson of "The New York Times" and I agree wholeheartedly.  This addictive readability is the result of a casual style of writing, almost "spoken-like" which no doubt was adopted to appeal to a wider audience.  To someone like me (used to reading dry and terse footnotes) something like Bailey's almost child-like giddiness at finding facts (the detective part of doing research) is refreshing but in a way starling: "An intriguing aspect of one's research is learning something of the fates of forgotten writers--a sobering lesson in the evanescence of literary fame.  Take the strange case of Flannery Lewis..." Bailey goes on to describe quite colloquially how he came across a listing in New Orleans and spoke with a woman who claimed to be a relation of Lewis who had recently died at the time of the call. I am not used to reading footnotes that appear as if a friend was relating a juicy detail of gossip from across a table.  This is the type of approachable style that makes this biography reading a candy-like treat instead of the stale and potentially cotton-mouthed conventional type of footnoting that passes for information/research in academia nowadays.

Beyond matters of style are both content and subject.  John Cheever was a troubled man from beginning to end.  Parts of his life read as a condensed version of the DSM IV text.  It is almost beyond painful to think about self-destructiveness in someone like Cheever, who had an almost godly power of observation of the world around him and the ability to transform it all into powerful narratives.  He was aware of so much, and perhaps that is why he suffered so much.  Complexity is not a word lost on him, although juxtaposed against Cheever's persona the word seems tiny and trivial.  John Cheever's alcoholism is perhaps the most difficult segment of the biography to read through.  Bailey writes a compelling narrative of a person bent on committing suicide by drinking his life away.  Cheever's painful loneliness, the way he fought and often lost against his demons, might appear as juicy gossip to any person not familiar with his work.  To the insightful reader (with the help of Bailey's expert analysis) one can easily see how these demons created the catalyst to some of Cheever's best short stories.  He was a broken man, a "finished" man, a man of no consequence by the time he turned his life around, got sober and focused on his comeback.  Blake Bailey devotes little time to the critical failure of "Bullet Park" (which may have precipitated Cheever's rapid decline) but what he does cover is enough to satisfy Cheever fans (the same who go through the difficulty of finding Cheever's most obscure/out of print work despite the challenges).

By the time sobriety and the magnificent success of "Falconer" came around, Cheever's painfully closeted bisexuality and the emotional neglect he suffered early in his life all seem to quell under the titanic perseverance of the man and the writer--colossal might be a better word.  From confused youth to helping define the term "American short story," to drunkard and back to the top of his form, Cheever is a man with few equals among his contemporaries (yes, that includes Updike as well).

Cheever's powerful accomplishment as a journal keeper is highlighted by Bailey in a way that is two-fold.  First, it instructs on the importance of journal keeping as a tool of observation.  Secondly, it shows a young writer the importance of keeping observations cataloged for later use as reservoirs of "story fodder."  I think of my own journal keeping and my tendencies to rant rather than observation, something that makes me feel a pang of guilt for such time-wasting endeavors.  Aspiring writers might be better serve to stop reading books about writing fiction and read well-written biographies such as "Cheever: A Life."