On 27 May it will be 100 years since John Cheever, the self styled ‘spy’ among the American middle class, was born in the suburb of Wollaston, Massachusetts, America. Cheever, who died from cancer in 1982, was often labelled ‘the Chekov of the suburbs’, especially thanks to the magnificent range of short stories he wrote, many of which were published in The New Yorker, the weekly that cemented his name in the literary world. Cheever observed the lives of the people around him and took this – and his own life – as the basis for his stories and novels, in which he tore away the stereotypical façade of suburban happiness by describing postwar American suburbia with its cocktail parties, alcoholism, adultery and the – often subdued – wish to climb the social ladder.
In The Enormous Radio, one of Cheever’s most famous stories, Jim and Irene Westcott discover that their new radio gives them the chance to listen in on the lives of the neighbours in their apartment complex. When Jim comes home from work and realises how much Irene is obsessed by the new radio, an argument is about to erupt. “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t quarrel with me,” she moaned, and laid her head on his shoulder.“All the others have been quarreling all day. Everybody’s been quarreling. They are all worried about money.” After Irene has given Jim a litany of adultery, diseases, debauchery, domestic violence and financial worries, she adds in a desperate voice: “But we’ve never been like that, have we darling? Have we?”
Two pages later Jim unmasks the real situation of their marriage: “Why are you so Christly all of a sudden? What’s turned you overnight into a convent girl? You stole your mother’s jewelry before they probated her will. You never gave your sister a cent of that money that was intended for her-not even when she needed it. You made Grace Howland’s life miserable, and where was all your piety and your virtue when you went to that abortionist? I’ll never forget how cool you were. You packed your bag and went off to have that child murdered as if you were going to Nassau.” The Enormous Radio clearly illustrates how Cheever was positioned between F. Scott Fitzgerald and the ‘dirty realism’ of late 20th century writers like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.
No matter how much praise he received for his stories, Cheever knew that his literary career would never be complete without a novel. It took him more than twenty years to produce The Wapshot Chronicle, the first of his five novels, which was published in 1957. His debut secured his reputation as a novelist when he was awarded the National Book Award. Still, most Cheever fans and experts consider his stories as superior to his novels, a fact that Cheever himself was well aware of. He remained the master of the short form, and his novels often read like a collection of short stories. As a novelist, Cheever missed the essential gift that makes a great novelist: structure and composition.
Just how much Cheever was a master of the short form became apparent when in 1991 a selection from his diaries was published as The Journals of John Cheever. The book made an incredible impact, not in the least because it revealed much about his troublesome marriage with Mary, the extent of his notorious alcoholism, and his adulterous affairs with both men and women. Cheever fought a lifelong battle with alcohol and with his feelings for men. His homosexual love life even made it to the Seinfeld episode ‘The Cheever Letters’.
For years Cheever had kept a diary as a sort of notebook and inspiration for his stories and novels. Many notes read like the synopsis of a short story and many paragraphs in the stories and novels read like a note from the diaries. Not long before his death, Cheever had discussed the publication of his diaries with his youngest son Ben. When he asked Ben to read some parts, his son saw that his father was crying after he stopped reading. No matter how troublesome his marriage was, The Journals, clearly show his deep love for Mary and his three children, Susan, Federico and Ben.
Noteworthy is also the symbiotic relationship with his brother Fred, seven years his senior. In his early twenties, Cheever shared a small place with his brother. They shared everything. “When the situation was most painful and critical, my brother entered my life and played out for me the role of mother, father, brother and friend.” Five years long the brothers were practically inseparable. To his psychiatrist he would later say that the relationship he had with his brother was like ‘a love affair’. When Fred finally left and John had to stand on his own feet – as he was a school dropout he didn’t have much options for anything but continuing his writing career – John was devastated and this pain would haunt him for the rest of his life.
‘Mary maldisposta’. His wife’s cranky demeanour plays a huge role in The Journals. This was extra painful for Cheever as he saw a reflection of the troubles he had witnessed in his parents’ marriage. Reading the journals, it is hard to believe that John and Mary Cheever never got divorced, as this seems imminent on most pages. His alcoholism didn’t exactly help. Only in 1975 he went to a rehabilitation centre, and he wouldn’t touch a single drink for the rest of his life.
The story ‘The Chimera’ is a perfect example of how reality and fiction overlapped in Cheever’s life. “My wife and I are terribly unhappy together, but we have three beautiful children, and we try to keep things going.” When the protagonist wakes up and goes to the bathroom, he finds a note from his little girl: “Dere Daddy do not leave us”. When Cheever mentioned that he once found a message his daughter had written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror: “D-e-r-e daddy, don’t leave us”, someone remarked that he’d seen that in one of the stories. “Probably so,” Cheever replied. “Everything I write is autobiographical.” For The Wapshot Chronicle Cheever relied heavily on his family history. It is telling that he wanted publication only after his mother had died.
In 2009 the Cheever biography Cheever, A Life was published, written by Blake Bailey. ‘I’m always surprised by how many people have never heard of John Cheever, much less have read John Cheever’, Bailey said at the launch of this excellent must-read for all Cheever fans. In a survey in 1979, the Philadelphia Enquirer asked which writers were most likely to be read by future generations. Cheever finished third after Saul Bellow and John Updike. But then again in those days Cheever was at the top of his fame, with The Stories of John Cheever published in 1978, finally giving him the well-deserved Pulitzer win. It is more than a coincidence that Cheever was preceded by these two writers: they both were friends but at the same time he felt a certain jealousy towards them, mainly stemming from his insecurity as a novelist.
Even though I admire all of Cheever’s work, including the novels, I must admit that none of them matches Bellow classics like Augie March or Herzog, and with his Rabbit-cycle, Updike wrote the ultimate Great American Suburbia Novel of the second part of the 20th century. But Cheever had no reason to feel jealous. When it comes to the short story he surpassed both Bellow and Updike – let alone when it comes to the unique journals, but of course these were only published after his death. In the famous 1977 Newsweek interview with his daughter Susan, Cheever said: “Writing is not at all a competitive sport. I don’t think of myself as being less than Saul Bellow or better than Herbert Gold. The essence of literature is always the singularity of the writer.”
Cheever also didn’t seem to care about any posthumous fame: “I don’t anticipate that my work will be read. That isn’t the sort of thing that concerns me. I might be forgotten tomorrow; it wouldn’t disconcert me in the least,” he said in an interview in 1976. But in spite of Blake Bailey’s words about Cheever’s current popularity, it is great to see that The Journals – which had become a sort of cult book – were republished in 2008. And all Cheever books – novels, stories and journals – are available in Vintage Classics, a very telling fact in itself. And let’s not forget the series MadMen: Don and Betty Draper’s address is Bullet Park Road – more than just a coincidental hint, referring to the title of Cheever’s third novel.
It would be great if these new editions will find their way to the Australian reading public. Cheever deserves it, as his work is timeless.