Deterioration of the Middle-Aged Businessman

Gordon Burn

  • John Cheever: The Journals
    Cape, 399 pp, £16.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 224 03244 5

Journal-writing and diary-keeping are a kind of secret exhibitionism, the genteel equivalent of scrawling on lavatory walls. This seems to be the message of ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel, Up-harsin’, one of John Cheever’s loopy, luminescent, triumphant later stories. The narrator, returning to America after a long absence, enters a stall in the men’s room at Grand Central Station, and there, etched into the marble partition (‘it might have been a giallo antico, but then I noticed Paleozoic fossils beneath the high polish and guessed that the stone was madrepore,’ Cheever notes in an uncharacteristic piece of shake-it-for-the-world High Bellowesque omniscience), he finds not the spurting pricks and lewdnesses he was expecting, but ‘organised into panels, like the pages of a book’, passages that might have been lifted from the commonplace-books and journals of his neighbours in the well-heeled, well-lit suburbs of upstate New York.

The story is a catalogue of such encounters, in toilets on trains and in public conveniences all across America, and clearly echoes the (unintentionally hilarious) scene of homosexual panic that crops up close to the end of Cheever’s first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957): ‘Feeling sick, he went to the toilet, where someone had written on the wall in pencil a homosexual solicitation for anyone who would stand by the water cooler and whistle “Yankee Doodle” … He stared out of the window at the landscape, seeking in it, with all his heart, some shred of usable and creative truth, but what he looked into were the dark plains of American sexual experience where the bison still roam.’

In Falconer (1977), the prison novel which celebrated Cheever’s release from thirty years of alcoholism, Ezekiel Farragut, a homosexual drug addict, in jail for the murder of his brother, feels compelled to describe the truth of his situation but cannot bring himself to sully the walls of his cell, the only surface available to him, with writing. ‘Some part of his background and its influence on his character restrained him from using the wall as a page. He was a man, he preserved at least some vision of dignity … His regard for rectitude was still with him.’ It was a regard which Cheever believed had dogged and circumscribed his life as a writer. He had sold his first story to the New Yorker in 1935 and he remained a New Yorker writer for almost fifty years, with all that that implied: mannerliness, propriety, clubbishness, suavity, a reticence with the felt-tip, the shiv and the porcelain-pointing spray-can.

For decades, the locus of Cheever’s fiction remained the drawing-rooms, swimming-pools, churches, clubhouses and beaches of the Hudson Valley he had moved into with his wife and young family in the early Fifties. He insinuated himself into the middle class, he notes in an early journal entry, ‘like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack’. Increasingly, however, he is haunted by ‘the feeling that one is incarcerated by beautiful and hideous things’.

It took him 25 years to complete The Wapshot Chronicle. But when the novel was published in 1957, the editors of Time felt able to offer it to their readers in a special edition. ‘Almost alone among latter-day writers,’ they vouchsafed, ‘John Cheever recommends no illicit pleasures. Instead he speaks for piety, charity, honour – even marital fidelity. He accepts without hesitation the ancient obligation to parents, family and religion.’

Cheever was never wealthy; he was only able to buy his first house when he was 50. But he had a naturally patrician manner which suggested breeding and money, and a notion of him as part of the Hudson Valley squirearchy – a kind of laminated placemat figure complete with hunting dogs, country estate, staff and saddle horses – took root. While the Beats and white negroes jive-assed and sprayed their profanities, Cheever participated in the school run and early-morning commute, walked the dogs, recognised the cocktail hour.

‘Oh this big, wild, rowdy country, full of whores and prize-fighters, and here I am stuck with an old river in the twilight and the deterioration of the middle-aged businessman,’ he laments in 1953. ‘Great progress in this kind of writing has been made in the last few years while I persevere in trying to write a novel without a four-letter word,’ he is still diarising fifteen years later. ‘Donleavy, Mailer, Roth, Updike, some of the most important men we have arc writing about cocks and cunts and arseholes while I describe the summer dawn.’ He routinely rails against ‘the contemptible smallness, the mediocrity of my work’.

What gut-spilling there was, what ear-scalding exhibitionism, Cheever saved for his journals. But even here, in the early years, the stilling hand of Mr Shawn and the beadles of the New Yorker is apparent, in coy allusions and elisions. ‘I go with Ben [his son] to the doctor and he slips his finger up his rump and knocks his b—ls together’, Cheever writes in 1959, at the age of 47. ‘Shaving and trying to come to terms with myself, I think that I am a small man, small feet, small p—k, small hands, small waist,’ he writes later the same year. The next entry is worth recording: ‘I would like a more muscular vocabulary. And I must be careful about my cultivated accent. When this gets into my prose, my prose is at its worst.’

Had Cheever been a man of spinsterly, or monogamous – even a man of unwavering, whop-it-on-the-table straight heterosexual inclinations – none of this might have presented any problems. But, as we already know from the published Letters, two volumes of memoirs by his daughter, and a full-dress biography, he wasn’t. ‘My father’s sexual appetites were one of his major preoccupations, and his lust for men was as distressing to him as his desire for women was self-affirming and ecstatic,’ Susan Cheever wrote in Home before Dark, published three years after Cheever’s death in 1982. It was the first public admission that ‘the Ovid of Ossining’, the man who once said his epitaph should read ‘Here lies John Cheever/He never disappointed a hostess/Or took it up the ass,’ who derided ‘faggots’ and ‘weak-minded pansies’ and who detested any sign of sexual ambiguity, at least for the last twenty years of his life enjoyed sex with men as well as women. It is the revelation of what Cheever in the journals variously refers to as his ‘erotic chaos’, his ‘aberrant carnality’, the airing of his secret life, that has guaranteed him a second life in the bull-pen of literary speculation and gossip; made him the inhabitant of a Life which now threatens to over-shadow the relatively modest output of a fifty-year writing career.

In her memoir, Susan Cheever alluded to her father’s ‘intense and polymorphous appetites’ and to the ‘tremendous guilt and self-loathing’ they caused him. ‘For him, sexual excitement was charged with the possibility of supreme pleasure and revolting lewdness. Here were the forces of good and the forces of evil combined and equal in one human desire.’ It is only with the publication of the journals that we are able to appreciate the delicacy of her paraphrasure. ‘Up goes his cod again’; ‘up springs my capricious muscle, ready for fun’; ‘my love muscle is restive’; ‘home on the train, my cod sore’; ‘my itchy member’; ‘I am weary of my capricious dick.’ ‘So,’ he writes in 1977, ‘you wake at half-past six with the mounting hots, and by ten o’clock you could, like a riggish cat mount a stuffed jaguar or fuck a rusty doorknob.’

Five years earlier, his waking thoughts had turned instantly to the bottle that had put him to sleep.

My cruel addiction begins sometimes at five, sometimes later. Sometimes before daybreak … I imagine that the water glass on the table beside my bed is filled with whisky. Sometimes there is ice, sometimes none … Things worsen at around seven. Now I can think of nothing but the taste of whisky … At about half-past nine my hands begin to shake so that I can’t hold a paper or type correctly. At around ten I am in the pantry making my fix. Then my shaken carcass and my one-track mind arc miraculously joined, and another day begins.

For a quarter of a century he squandered energy trying not to drink before 4 p.m. and then before noon, and then before 10 a.m. and then before breakfast. ‘1966: I sit on the terrace reading about the torments of Scott Fitzgerald. I am, he was, one of those men who read the grievous accounts of hard-drinking, self-destructive authors, holding a glass of whisky in our hands, the tears pouring down our cheeks.’ ‘1968: Dear Lord – who else? – keep me away from the bottles in the pantry. Guide me past the gin and the bourbon. Nine in the morning.’

The sauce, and his off-again, off-again relations with his wife: these are the constants in the thirty or so years covered by the Journals. But it is Cheever’s sexual neurosis, his contested sexual identity, which engulfs him and turns into an obsession.

1952: ‘There is the euphoria, the sense that life is no more than it appears to be, light and water and trees and pleasant people that can be brought crashing down by a neck, a hand, an obscenity written on a toilet door. There is always, somewhere, this hint of aberrant carnality.’

1958: ‘There is another world – I see this – there is chaos, and we are suspended above it by a thread. But the thread holds. People who seek, who are driven to seek, love in urinals, do not deserve the best of our attention.’

I960: ‘In the men’s room at Grand Central … His whatsit as well as his backside are on display, and the opportunities that he represents seem to me dangerous and fascinating. Here is a means of upsetting the applecart in an intimacy, a word … But I take Federico [his son] swimming and find myself happily a member of the lawful world.’

1966: ‘To have the good fortune to love what is seemly and what the world counsels one to love, and to be loved in return, is a lighter destiny than to court a sailor in Port-au-Prince who will pick your pockets, wring your neck, and leave you dead in a gutter.’

1968: ‘I lie in the sun thinking about the mysteriousness of obscenity. All those cocks and balls drawn on toilet walls are not the product of perverse frustrations. Some of them are high-hearted signs of good cheer.’

1978: ‘I am unlike you, unlike any of you eating your wretched lunches in a Greek diner. I am queer, and happy to say so. At the same time, the waitress is so desirable that I could eat her hands, her mouth.’

This psychosexual trajectory finds its equivalent in Cheever’s fiction. For example the inflamed homophobia of The Wapshot Chronicle quiets into the ‘manly’ (both participants are husband and father) motel couplings of ‘Oh what a paradise it seems’, 25 years later. The Journals, though, are miserly with their insights into the writing process, and even with the details of Cheever’s daily writing routine. ‘Work, work, work,’ he admonishes himself at one point. But it’s a rare morning when he rises to face the world ‘with no cafard, no hangover, no ache, no pain, no shakes, no megrims, no racking thirst, no hunger for pills, no strange sensation in my cock, no anxieties, no crushing and nameless sorrows, no tremors’.

Can this John Cheever – febrile, self-pitying, seemingly locked into a decades-long funk of gin nastiness – be the same John Cheever who John Updike, in no fewer than four essays in Odd Jobs, the latest collection of his reviews and occasional journalism, remembers for ‘his vitality, and the dazzling veil of verbal fun he spun around himself’; as ‘immensely, cascadingly funny’? And this after Updike has opened his copy of the Letters in 1989 to be smote by Cheever making pissy remarks about him to Frederick Exley. ‘I would go to considerable expense and inconvenience to avoid his company,’ Cheever wrote in 1965 of the man who would give the eulogy at his funeral. ‘I think his magnanimity [sic] specious and his work seems motivated by covetousness, exhibitionism and a stony heart.’

‘He was a gem of a man, instantly poetic and instinctively magnanimous – one of those rare persons who heighten your sense of human possibilities,’ Updike writes of Cheever, adding: ‘Dead men shouldn’t be blamed for having their private letters published.’ Any more of course than they should for having their notebooks and personal papers retailed in hard covers, although, in his introduction to the Journals, Benjamin Cheever lays at least part of the responsibility at his father’s door: ‘I asked if he wanted them published, and he smiled … he meant to show others that then thoughts were not unthinkable.’

The trouble is that the reader of the Journals is too often cast in the role that sometimes excited and sometimes appalled John Cheever, but invariably stirred his cod: that of the men’s-room voyeur, eye pressed to the spy-hole gouged out of the formica, aghast and yet held spellbound by the variety of human experience manifesting itself in the next cubicle. The purpose of the pissoir dauber with the MagicMarker is to cause shock, even (perhaps mainly) within himself. Benjamin Cheever reports that his father looked ‘almost gleeful’ at the ruckus he knew the publication of such inflammatory material was bound to cause. ‘He tried for a while to find a university or a major library collection that would take [the journals] under his complicated stipulations,’ Cheever’s daughter adds, ‘and he was pleased by the fact that people who read parts of the journals were shocked – both by their vigour and their indiscretion.’

‘You thought I was writing that and all the time I was writing this.’ This is clearly intended to be Cheever’s posthumous parting message to the world. As it is, in the competitively confessional climate that exists a decade after his death, the Journals merely join the ranks of Barbra and Bette and Liz and Liza and others from humble or ‘dysfunctional’ backgrounds, waiting to cough their guts to Johnny or Dave or Merv or Oprah in prime time. Rumours of an incestuous relationship between Cheever and his brother have recently been bruited, in case, presumably (and in the wake of Diane Middlebrook’s best-selling biography of Anne Sexton), the boozing and screwing and ordinary aberrant sex stuff doesn’t prove strong enough. It is easy to forget with all this, as Updike has gone to pains to point out, that John Cheever, before he was anything, was a celebratory writer. His hope, he once wrote, was ‘to celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream’; it was to hymn ‘the sense of life as a privilege, the earth as something splendid to walk on’. Returning to the stories fresh (more accurately, staled) from the Journals, they seem for the first time un-flighted: depressurised; their justly celebrated hopefulness, simplicity and freaky poetry temporarily, but not fatally, compromised. Cheever accepted the National Medal for Literature two months before his death with a speech that said ‘a page of good prose remains invincible.’ Even, it is tempting to add, against the hand of its creator, mixing it from the other side of paradise.