My God, the Suburbs!
- Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey
Picador, 770 pp, £25.00, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 330 43790 5
One of John Cheever’s most famous stories is called ‘The Swimmer’. It is set, like much of his fiction, in the lawned suburbs somewhere outside New York City, and it is filled, like most of his fiction, with despair. The hero, Neddy Merrill, the father of four daughters, is sitting by a neighbour’s pool drinking gin when the idea comes to him that he might reach home by doing a lap of all of his neighbours’ pools on the way. In the pages that follow he is both a mythical hero of the suburbs and a holy fool; he is both a legend in his own dreams and a ridiculous figure, a character whose reality is evoked by the close detail with which his world is described, but who is also a victim of his own imaginings. There is a realism in the way the detail and the characters are evoked which forces the reader to believe that this is actually happening – that Neddy is really swimming home, pool by pool – but there is also something else going on which makes us wonder if the story is a metaphor for something, or a parable. It ends with Neddy’s arrival home to find his house dark and its doors locked. ‘He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.’
In Cheever’s journals for the months before he wrote the story, he included an entry which dealt with his increasing ambition and fame: ‘I dream that my face appears on a postage stamp.’ Soon afterwards, he wrote about something which might have prevented this actually happening: about a secret life which gave him creative energy and filled him with suburban shame. On the one hand, he wanted to be a happily married man and a devoted father, the man whom his friends and readers believed him to be. ‘It is my wife’s body that I most wish to gentle, it is into her that I most wish to pour myself,’ he wrote. But, on the other hand, his thoughts had a habit of turning, as they did in that same diary entry, to his sexual interest in men, this time to a male figure he had seen by a swimming-pool. ‘His soft gaze follows me, settles on me, and I have a deadly itchiness in my crotch.’ He thought about having sex in the shower with the young man; he contemplated ‘the murderous checks and balances of a flirtation’. But then he realised that he was, in fact, a respectable married man with three children who dreamed of having his face on a stamp. ‘But then there are the spiritual facts: my high esteem for the world, the knowledge that it is not in me to lead a double life, my love of perseverance, a passionate wish to honour the vows I’ve made to my wife and children.’ Nonetheless, he was intrigued by the urge, which his creation Neddy Merrill would soon also feel,
to plunge into life, to race after our instincts, to upset the petty canons of decency and cleanliness, and yet if I made it in the shower I could not meet the smiles of the world … I have been in this country a hundred times before … Why should I be tempted to throw away the vast delights of love for a chance shot in a shower?
Thus ‘The Swimmer’, read in tandem with Cheever’s journals, becomes a version of the writer’s dream and then his nightmare. His dream was that he should have ‘breached this contract years ago and run off with some healthy-minded beauty’, his nightmare that he would come home to an empty house, that he would, because of instincts he barely understood and deeply despised, lose the domestic life he craved and the people he most loved. He wrote in his journals that he was locked into ‘the toleration of an intolerable marriage’. Soon after his account of the man he had seen by the pool, he wrote of being with his younger son, Federico: ‘I have no freedom from him. Never having known the love of a father has forced me into a love so engulfing and passionate that there is no margin of choice.’
He filled his journals with images of love for those around him and longing for domestic harmony, and then broke the harmony with images of despair, often caused by hangovers (he drank vast quantities, often starting in the morning), and of hate, usually for his wife (who for much of the time they were married did not speak to him, often with good reason). Few images of happiness or ease were allowed to stand. In 1963, for example, he registered a memory from childhood of being at the beach with his parents and his older brother, Fred, and then returning home.
We have our ice cream on the back lawn, read, play whist, wish on the evening star for a gold watch and chain, kiss one another goodnight, and go to bed. These seemed to be the beginnings of a world, these days all seemed like mornings, and if there was a single incident that could be used as a turning point it was, I suppose, when my father went out to play an early game of golf and found a dear friend and business associate on the edge of the third fairway hanging dead from a tree.
The tone in Cheever’s journals was usually self-pitying and humourless. In the stories, however, he could turn domestic despair into comedy and then back again, often in a single phrase. Neddy in ‘The Swimmer’, for example, Cheever wrote, ‘might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one’. Or in ‘The Country Husband’, as the children are bickering in their father’s presence before their mother enters to announce that supper is ready in their nice suburban house, Cheever risks a phrase that makes you unsure whether to laugh or cry: ‘She strikes a match and lights the six candles in this vale of tears.’
For Cheever, the house, the simple suburban house, was a sort of hell. Yet this was where he lived, and the idea of losing it, or being left alone in it, was a further depth of hell that he dreaded. In his journal for 1963 he brooded over this:
My grandfather is supposed to have died, alone, unknown, a stranger to his wife and his sons, in a furnished room on Charles Street. My own father spent two or three years in his late seventies alone at the farm in Hanover. The only heat was a fireplace; his only companion a halfwit who lived up the road. I lived as a young man in cold, ugly and forsaken places yearning for a house, a wife, the voices of my sons, and having all of this I find myself, when I am engorged with petulance, thinking that after all, after the Easter egg hunts and the merry singing at Christmas, after the loving and the surprises and the summer afternoons, after the laughter and the open fires, I will end up cold, alone, dishonoured, forgotten by my children, an old man approaching death without a companion.
Cheever had another problem besides his fear that his secret sexuality would be discovered and that he would lose the cocoon of domestic life which left him so blissfully unhappy. He was a snob. He believed that he was a Cheever and that this meant something, that he belonged in some way to American grandeur. Thus his social status in the suburbs mattered to him, as did material wealth and its trappings, even when he did not have them. The decline in fortune suffered by his parents and the drunken antics of his brother, their letting the family name down, filled him with as much shame as his own sexuality or his own drinking. In company he could be suave and charming, but the minute he was alone and putting pen to paper, this shame and its attendant dramas would make its way into his fiction and his journals in guises both comic and maudlin. He was aware, as were others, of his ‘cultivated accent’ – his daughter, Susan, reported her friends asking if he was English or something – and noted that he should be careful with it. ‘When this gets into my prose, my prose is at its worst.’
The first Cheever in America was Ezekiel, who was headmaster of the Boston Latin School from 1671 to 1708, and the author of a book on Latin which was the standard textbook in the United States for more than a century. On his mother’s side, Cheever claimed to be descended from Sir Percy Devereaux, a mayor of Windsor: indeed, his mother kept a picture of Windsor Castle on her wall. But this was nonsense; he had no such ancestor. When Cheever’s family wanted to mock him, they referred to him as the Lost Earl of Devereaux. His mother was a nurse; he gave some of her characteristics, such as her interest in organising others, to Honora Wapshot in his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle. Like Coverly Wapshot, Cheever blamed his mother for handing on some of her worst anxieties to him. His father was a shoe salesman.
In his early forties, after winning an O. Henry Award, Cheever went to see his mother. He reported the following exchange: ‘I read in the newspaper that you won a prize.’ ‘Yes, mother, I didn’t tell you about it because it wasn’t terribly important to me.’ ‘No, it wasn’t to me either.’ In the Wapshot novels, everybody loves Coverly’s older brother, Moses, but ‘everybody did not love Coverly.’ So, too, everyone loved Fred, John Cheever’s older brother, who was born in 1905, but everybody did not love John, who was born in 1912. By the time his mother was pregnant with him, indeed, the marriage was under so much strain that Cheever’s father invited an abortionist to dinner. As Blake Bailey writes in his biography: ‘It was a story that haunted Cheever the rest of his life … Not surprisingly, he saw fit to blame his mother for having the bad taste to tell him of the episode.’
The family was affluent at first, living in a large house in Quincy, Massachusetts, but by the 1920s, as the Depression came to New England, Cheever’s father’s business failed and he began crying at the breakfast table. Fred was the strong one and excelled at sport whereas John was weak and prone to illness. Fred defended him, however, punching an Irishman who said that his little brother looked like a girl when he skated. Cheever opened his story ‘The National Pastime’: ‘To be an American and unable to play baseball is comparable to being a Polynesian and unable to swim.’ His uncle, when he saw him, said: ‘Well, I guess you could play tennis.’ Cheever covered his tracks by hating tennis all his life and developing an elaborate and conspicuous interest in sport, including baseball. ‘He flung himself into icy pools and skated with a masculine swagger,’ Bailey writes. While Fred was away at college, John also developed an interest in other pastimes, such as attending ‘a penis-measuring contest, followed by an orgy’ and soon learning to masturbate with a boy called Fax Ogden. ‘Rainy days were best of all,’ Bailey writes, ‘as the two boys could stay in bed and practise, indefatigably, their favourite pastime.’ Cheever wrote in an unpublished memoir that ‘when one bed got gummed up we used to move to another.’
Cheever was good at blaming people; so skilled did he become at it that he sometimes went as far as blaming himself. Since he never had a job or went out much, and mainly saw his family and his family only, he specialised in blaming them. He blamed his father and his brother for not playing ball with him when he was small. He blamed his father for losing his money, his brother for leaving home. He blamed his mother for many things, but mainly for opening a giftshop to keep the family going and making a success of it. Once she opened the shop, Cheever wrote, ‘I was to think of her, not in any domestic or maternal role, but as a woman approaching a customer in a store and asking, bellicosely: “Is there something I can do for you?”’ The vulgarity of it all was an ‘abysmal humiliation’ for him. When he read Freud, Cheever also discovered that his family was a ‘virtual paradigm for “that chain of relationships” (weak father, dominant mother) “that usually produces a male homosexual.”’ Thus they didn’t just make him poor, they made him queer, and he spent the rest of his life resenting them.
Since home did not suit his tastes, Cheever invented an alternative and much grander home – the artists’ retreat at Yaddo in upstate New York, where he first went when he was 22. He seems to have enjoyed himself immensely there over the years. ‘It’s the only place I’ve ever felt at home,’ he said. In 1977 he reminisced: ‘I have been sucked by Ned [Rorem] and others in almost every room and tried unsuccessfully to mount a young man on the bridge between the lakes.’ Soon, despite this, or because of it, he became a favourite of Mrs Ames, who ran the place, and of the servants, who called him Lord Fauntleroy. (‘Only dogs, servants and children know who the real aristocrats are,’ he liked to say.) One of his happiest memories was returning to Yaddo and overhearing the parlourmaid say: ‘Master John is back!’
Cheever’s early stories deal with the nuclear family as a crucible of tension and betrayal; his families drink together and manage to cause each other nothing but pain. He became a master of the single, searing image of pure desolation in the midst of the trappings of good cheer and middle-class comfort. Because of his drinking habits and also because his talent seemed to focus best on the small moment of intense truth, he had real difficulty writing his first two novels. When he was 40, he gave a hundred pages of a novel to the editor who had commissioned it to be told that they were worthless, that he should give up writing and look for another way of making a living. Although The Wapshot Chronicle (1957) and The Wapshot Scandal (1964) were well received and have their comic moments, there is something unfocused about the narratives and sketchy about the characters. As he came to the end of The Wapshot Scandal he wrote in his journal: ‘I cannot resolve the book because I have been irresolute about my own affairs.’
This is an interesting understatement, but it was maybe as far as he could go. And it is a fascinating idea that his talent could thrive using the sharp system of the story, but he struggled so much with the novels simply because there were vast areas of himself that he could not use as a basis for a character dramatised over time. In his stories he could create a tragic, trapped individual in a single scene or moment; he had a deep knowledge of what that was like. In his two Wapshot novels, using broad strokes, he managed merely a comic family down on their luck.
The problem was partly his intense inhabiting of the domestic sphere and the suburban landscape, as though this were a way of shutting out the wider world, and partly his refusal even to recognise his own homosexuality as anything other than a dark hidden area of the self which could not be explored. ‘For Cheever it would always be one thing to have sex with a man,’ Bailey writes, ‘another to spend the night with him. The latter was a taboo he would rarely if ever violate until a ripe old age.’ In his journals he wrote: ‘If I followed my instincts I would be strangled by some hairy sailor in a public urinal. Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy, was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.’ One of his best friends in his twenties was Malcolm Cowley, through whom he had briefly met Hart Crane. Cowley’s wife had been on the ship with Crane when he committed suicide in 1932. A homosexual lifestyle, Cowley had warned Cheever, ‘could only end with drunkenness and ghastly suicide’. As one of Cheever’s colleagues in the Signal Corps in World War Two remarked: ‘He wanted to be accepted as a New England gentleman and New England gentlemen aren’t gay. Back then you had no idea of the opprobrium. Even in the Signal Corps, even in the film and theatre world, you were a second-class citizen if you were gay, and Cheever did not want to be that.’
By the time he joined the Signal Corps, Cheever was married and his wife was pregnant. In 1952, in one of the earliest entries in his journal, Cheever wrote:
I can remember walking around the streets of New York on a summer night some years ago. I cannot say that it was like the pain of living death; it never had that clear a meaning. But it was torment, crushing torment and frustration. I was caught under the weight of some great door. The feeling always was that if I could express myself erotically I should come alive.
Later, Mary Cheever would report that she knew that there was something wrong with her marriage. ‘I sensed that he wasn’t entirely masculine.’ When asked if she discussed it with Cheever, she said: ‘Oh Lord, no. Oh Lord, no. He was terrified of it himself.’
Cheever didn’t like homosexuals. ‘Their funny clothes and their peculiar smells and airs and scraps of French’ struck him as ‘an obscenity and a threat’. Having struggled to remain monogamous (and heterosexual) for almost 20 years, he noticed a change coming. When he saw Gore Vidal on TV in the early 1960s he thought him ‘personable and intelligent’ and then wrote: ‘I think that he is either not a fairy or that perhaps we have reached a point where men of this persuasion are not forced into attitudes of bitterness, rancour and despair.’ Soon afterwards, Cheever noted more men of his persuasion in a diner. ‘I think there is a fag beside me at the lunch counter,’ he wrote. ‘He drums his nails impatiently and who but a fag would do this?’ He prayed for the surf to wash such people away. In 1960, 19 years after his marriage, he spent a night with Calvin Kentfield, a writer he had met at Yaddo a decade earlier. He noted in his journal:
I spend the night with C., and what do I make of this? I seem unashamed, and yet I feel or apprehend the weight of social strictures, the threat of punishment. But I have acted only on my own instincts, tried, discreetly, to relieve my drunken loneliness, my troublesome hunger for sexual tenderness. Perhaps sin has to do with the incident, and I have had this sort of intercourse [oral, it seems] only three times in my adult life. I know my troubled nature and have tried to contain it along creative lines. It is not my choice that I am alone here and exposed to temptation, but I sincerely hope that this will not happen again. I trust that what I did was not wrong. I trust that I have harmed no one I love. The worst may be that I have put myself into a position where I may be forced to lie.
In 1964, Cheever invited the writer Paul Moor, who was a fan of his work, up to his hotel room in Berlin. ‘I think he was or may be a homosexual,’ he wrote to a friend about Moor. ‘This would account for the funny shoes and the tight pants and I thought his voice a note or two too deep.’ Later he wrote in a letter: ‘I would like to live in a world in which there are no homosexuals but I suppose Paradise is thronged with them.’ Cheever at this stage was 52. Most of his observations about homosexuals are unusual perhaps in that he wrote them down and then did not want them destroyed after he died. But they were not unusual as ways for a married man who was gay to keep the world at arm’s length by pretending, even if just as a brief respite, that other homosexuals were queer, while he just happened to like having sex with men. (Even in his late sixties Cheever barely tolerated this aspect of himself, and did not tolerate it at all in others. When an old friend confided that he, too, had had gay encounters, Cheever wrote in his journal: ‘I decided, before he had completed the sentence, that I would never see him again as a friend and I never did.’)
Just as it is important to place Cheever’s diaries and what would later become known as his self-loathing in its historical context, it might also help if we did the same with his drinking. But even in the context of the time, he was drinking a lot. Bailey reports on his moods and phases as a drunk:
There was Cheever the antic, happy drunk, who one night in 1946 danced the ‘atomic waltz’ with Howard Fast’s wife, Betty, on his shoulders, until she put out a cigarette in his ear and he flung her to the floor. There was Cheever the mean drunk, whose dry wit would suddenly turn vicious at some vague point … And finally – more and more often – there was Cheever the bored and even boring drunk, pickled by the long day’s drinking and wishing only for bed.
In the late 1950s, his brother Fred had to be hospitalised for ‘alcoholic malnutrition’. ‘Alarmed that his brother’s fate could prove to be his own,’ Bailey writes, ‘John pored over his journal and was appalled by the obviously “progressive” nature of his disease.’ He looked up the telephone number of Alcoholics Anonymous. Later, he wrote in his journals: ‘Then, my hands shaking, I open the bar and drink the leftover whiskey, gin and vermouth, whatever I can lay my shaking hands on.’
‘My God, the suburbs!’ Cheever wrote in 1960. ‘They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory and we thought of them as a loss of privacy, a cesspool of conformity and a life of indescribable dreariness in some split-level village where the place name appeared in the New York Times only when some bored housewife blew off her head with a shotgun.’ By this time he had been living in the suburbs for almost a decade, having moved in 1951 to Scarborough (with his wife, his daughter, Susan, born in 1943, and son Ben, born in 1948) and then in 1961 to a large house in Ossining, where he was to live for the rest of his life. His third child, Federico, was born in 1957 in Rome, during a family sojourn there paid for by MGM’s purchase of the rights to one of his stories for $25,000.
Cheever’s relationship with his children was very close and mostly difficult, partly because he had nothing much to do all day except lounge around looking at them in a state of half-inebriation and total dissatisfaction. Towards the end of his life, he told colleagues that once, after a row with his wife, he woke to find a message written in lipstick by his daughter on the bathroom mirror: ‘Dere daddy, don’t leave us.’ When it was pointed out that such a scene occurs in his story ‘The Chimera’, with the same misspelling, Cheever replied: ‘Everything I write is autobiographical.’ But this was not so. Like a lot of writers, everything he wrote had a basis in autobiography and another in wishful or dreamy thinking. His daughter later denied that the scene took place: ‘I know how to spell,’ Susan Cheever said, ‘and I think what we wanted was for him to leave us. One thing about my father was he was always there, you could not get rid of him. He worked at home, he ate at home, he drank at home. So “don’t leave us”? That was never the fear.’
‘Cheever,’ Bailey writes, ‘loved being a father in the abstract, but the everyday facts of the matter were often a letdown. He was dismayed by his oldest child, for one thing, as she continued to “overthrow his preconceptions” by remaining, as he put it, “a fat importunate girl”.’ As she was growing up, her father was a nightmare. ‘I defied my father’s fantasies,’ she wrote in her memoir Home before Dark. ‘As an adolescent I was dumpy, plagued by acne, slumped over, and alternately shy and aggressive, and my lank straight brown hair was always in my eyes.’ When she invited boyfriends home, Cheever was not helpful. ‘He liked to invite my boyfriends off with him to go scything in the meadow or work on a felled tree with the chainsaw or clear some brush out behind the pine trees. I don’t know what happened out there, but they always came back in a rage.’ With his elder son, he was almost worse. Ben, Bailey writes, was
now old enough to be a considerable disappointment in his own right: as his father was at pains to remind him, he too needed to lose weight and do better in school and (especially) take an interest in sports like other boys … Cheever, a great reader of Freud, was not consoled by the news that homosexual tendencies are somewhat innate in all people; rather he became even more vigilant in cultivating a proper ethos for his older son. ‘Speak like a man!’ he’d say, driven up the wall by the boy’s high-pitched voice, not to mention his giggling (‘You laugh like a woman!’).
Cheever picked on one of his son’s friends whom he thought was effeminate. The boy, he wrote, ‘often stands with both hands on his hips in an attitude that I was told, when I was a boy, was the sign of a congenital queer … He is attached securely to my son and I do not like him.’
Cheever’s view of other writers was not sweet either. He wrote to a friend about John Updike: ‘I would go to considerable expense and inconvenience to avoid his company. I think his magnanimity specious and his work seems motivated by covetousness, exhibitionism and a stony heart.’ (Updike, when he read this remark in Cheever’s published letters in 1994, returned the compliment, when he described his feelings about Cheever’s drinking: ‘I felt badly because it was as though a natural resource was being wasted. Although the covetousness in me, and stony heart, kind of rejoiced to see one less writer to compete with.’) In 1965, Cheever (who, unlike some of his fellow writers, was not boycotting the White House) managed to heckle Updike as he read a story at a reception there. ‘The arrogance of Updike goes back to the fact that he does not consider me a peer,’ he wrote in his journals, bitterly noting that Updike considered Salinger a peer.
Out of all this hate and resentment and foolishness, two figures escaped. One was Cheever’s younger son, Federico, and the other was Saul Bellow. Cheever seems to have liked both of them; or both of them had worked out a way to evade the daily spite he directed at all others, including his editor at the New Yorker, William Maxwell, who, he noted, bored him stiff. Federico got on with his father by not taking him seriously, by becoming his kid brother rather than his son, and then slowly becoming his father’s protector. ‘More and more,’ Bailey writes, ‘Federico had become the father and John the wayward boy: the latter had to be told not to swim naked in other people’s pools, not to use the chainsaw when drunk – on and on – while the former patiently absorbed the insults Cheever inflicted on whosoever presumed to look after him.’
When Cheever met Bellow in the early 1950s he felt an instant rapport with him. ‘I do not have it in me to wish him bad luck: I do not have it in me to be his acolyte,’ he wrote. ‘I loved him,’ Bellow said in return, and added that Cheever had not tried Yankee condescension on him. ‘It fell to John to resolve these differences [of background]. He did it without the slightest difficulty, simply by putting human essences in first place.’
When Cheever said of Bellow, ‘we share not only our love of women but a fondness for the rain,’ Mary Cheever remarked: ‘They were both women haters.’ Certainly, most of the time, Cheever hated his wife. As the position of women in America began to change, and Mary Cheever developed independent views and ambitions, her husband’s temper was not improved. ‘Educating an unintellectual woman,’ he remarked, ‘is like letting a rattlesnake into the house. She cannot add a column of figures or make a bed but she will lecture you on the inner symbolism of Camus while the dinner burns.’ His hatred for his wife disfigured some of his stories, including ‘An Educated American Woman’ (1963) and ‘The Ocean’ (1964). (He conceded that his depiction of ‘predatory women’ was a ‘serious weakness’ in his work.) ‘An Educated American Woman’ is perhaps the best account we have of how frightened American men were by the possibility that their wives would be anything other than little homemakers.
Just as the position of women was changing in America, so, too, the prejudice against homosexuals was fading. While Cheever was threatened by the former, it was clear that the latter would have a profound effect on him once he left his own house in Ossining and took a look at the world. In 1973, when he began teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he had T.C. Boyle, Ron Hansen and Allan Gurganus as students. Not only were these talented young writers, but one of them – Gurganus – was extremely handsome (as the photograph included in Bailey’s biography makes abundantly clear) and, as Bailey puts it, ‘quite insouciantly gay’. As Cheever admired Gurganus’s work (and introduced him to Maxwell, who published one of his stories), he presumed that Gurganus would return the compliment by sleeping with him, despite the fact that he was almost 15 years older than Gurganus’s father. Some of his letters to Gurganus were playful, including the one where he asked (in return for the Maxwell introduction) for some favours. ‘All I expect is that you learn to cook, service me sexually from three to seven times a day, never interrupt me, contradict me or reflect in any way on the beauty of my prose, my intellect or my person. You must also play soccer, hockey and football.’ Gurganus let him know as sweetly as he could that while he liked him, he did not want to sleep with him. ‘How dare he refuse me in favour of some dim-witted major in decorative arts,’ Cheever wrote. He asked Gurganus to consider whether such figures ‘appreciate the excellence of your character and the fineness of your mind’.
What Cheever was really looking for, as Gurganus put it, was ‘somebody who was literary, intelligent, attractive and manly, but gay on a technicality’. Early in 1977, at the University of Utah, he met Max Zimmer, a PhD candidate in his early thirties, who had been brought up as a Mormon. As Cheever felt ‘a profound stirring of love’ and came on to Max, Max felt ‘confusion and revulsion’. That spring Cheever noted:
How cruel, unnatural and black is my love for Z. I seem to mean to prey on Z’s youth, to drive Z into a tragic isolation, to deny Z any life at all. Love is to instruct, to show our beloved what we know of the sources of light, and this may be the declaration of a crafty and lecherous old man. I can only hope not.
In fact, he hoped not quite a lot of the time. And his hoping not was generally improved by sending Zimmer’s work too to the New Yorker.
Since Cheever took the view that sexual stimulation could improve his eyesight, part of Max’s function, once their affair began, was to offer the same comfort as a good pair of spectacles might have. (When driving at night, Cheever used to ask his wife to fondle his penis ‘to a bone’.) ‘Whenever Max submitted a manuscript,’ Bailey writes, ‘Cheever would first insist that the young man help “clear [his] vision” with a handjob; then (as Max noted in his journal) Cheever would ‘take my story upstairs and come back down with a remote look of consternation on your face and with criticisms so remote they only increase my confusion’.
Max, who was confused, as they say, rather than actually gay, was uneasy and guilty in the Cheever household.
If he thought it was OK to parade me in front of Mary and his children, then I guess it was OK. The fact that I didn’t feel OK doing it was my problem … Obviously it’s what people in the East do, the way he takes it in stride. Sitting down at the dinner table with his family, an hour after I’ve given him a handjob and he still has stains in his corduroys from it, I guess this is OK here. It’s tearing my guts out, but Ben’s being nice to me, and Susie – who should take a fucking plate and bust it over my head – and poor Mary, you know.
In her memoir, Susan Cheever wrote about the view the family took of Max’s presence.
He was often at the house in Ossining, and although this was not a comfortable situation for him, he treated my mother with a relaxed courtesy and respect. In fact, he treated her a lot better than my father did. I was always glad to see him. He was pleasant and funny, and when they were together my father seemed more accessible than he usually was.
In 1975, at the age of 63, after a drunken term spent teaching at Boston University, Cheever stopped drinking. A year later, he finished his novel Falconer. Susan Cheever describes that year:
My father’s certainty as a writer was never more apparent than during the year he was writing Falconer … Each chapter and scene seemed to stream from his imagination already written. These were the things he had been longing to say … Falconer is a novel about a man imprisoned for the murder of his brother. He is a heroin addict, and his marriage is a travesty of marriage vows. The centre of the book is a tender homosexual love affair.
When the book was published, Cheever was on the cover of Newsweek with the caption: ‘A Great American Novel’. The book was number one on the New York Times bestseller list for three weeks. In 1979, Cheever’s collected Stories won a Pulitzer prize and wide critical acclaim.
Falconer arose from the clash between the two most significant buildings in the town of Ossining: Cheever’s suburban home, which was for him and his family often like a prison, and Sing Sing. In the early 1970s, when he had exhausted himself by drinking and had also exhausted himself writing slack stories on the subject of the deep despair and the minor travails inherent in American East Coast suburban life, Cheever was invited to teach at Sing Sing, where he befriended one of the prisoners. He saw a great deal of this man when he was released. ‘Almost every set piece in Falconer,’ Bailey writes, ‘almost every detail … appears somewhere in Cheever’s journal entries about Sing Sing, based on information he’d extracted from inmates.’ The novel, which is short, has a relentlessness in tone, a gravity and seriousness, which is unlike anything else Cheever wrote. It is as though the book were not merely a strained metaphor for all the anguish Cheever felt and caused in his life, but a dark exploration and recognition of that anguish, presented in a style which was factual but also heightened and controlled and then filled with pain. The style is risky in the way it allows bald statement to brush against an overall vision which is like something from the Psalms. The sense of violence, hatred, pain and deep alienation is offered raw; beside this, love, or something like love, comes as dark redemption or another form of power. In the middle somewhere are the grim ordinariness of prison life and some brilliant sex scenes. If you ignore the upbeat, cheesy ending, Falconer is the best Russian novel in the English language.
Cheever’s journals for the months when he worked on his masterpiece are fascinating. He understood that even the smallest experience, such as a wait at an airport, can become something much larger in the imagination. ‘On the question of crypto-autobiography,’ he wrote,
and the fact that the greatness of fiction is not this, I am writing not from my experience as a teacher in prison but from my experience as a man. I have seen confinement in prison, but I have experienced confinement as a corporal in a line rifle company, as a stockade guard, as a traveller confined for 36 hours in the Leningrad airport during a blizzard, and for as long again in the Cairo airport during a strike. I have known emotional, sexual and financial confinements, and I have actually been confined to a dryout tank on 93rd Street for clinical alcoholics.
In the next entry, he ends with a remark which is one of the few endearing remarks in his journals and should be the motto of every writer alive: ‘All right, I want something beautiful, and it will be done by June.’
Cheever enjoyed being famous and dry for the last few years of his life. Since there was something petulant and childish about him when he was a drunk, now merely the child remained. Susan wrote about these years, as he basked in late success. ‘Wealth and fame and love had an odd effect on my father … He went through a kind of adolescence of celebrity. At times he seemed to be his own number one groupie … In restaurants, he let head waiters know that he was someone important. Since this kind of behaviour was new to him, he wasn’t particularly graceful about it.’ Federico, whose remarks on his father in this biography are notable for their wisdom and general good humour, has the best line on his father’s fame: ‘When you’re a musician, people can ask you to play, and when you’re a movie star, people can ask for your autograph, but what does it mean to be a famous writer? Well, you get to say pompous things. You get to talk about aesthetics and things like that. That’s the goodies you get.’
As he made an effort to repair the damage he had done to his family, Cheever was aware that his journals, four thousand pages of them, lay in a drawer like a lovely toy time bomb. Two weeks before he died he phoned his son Ben: ‘What I wanted to tell you,’ he said, ‘is that your father has had his cock sucked by quite a few disreputable characters. I thought I’d tell you that, because sooner or later somebody’s going to tell you and I’d just as soon it came from me.’ Ben wrote that he was ‘forgiving’. ‘But mostly I was just bewildered, and I remember now that my reply came almost as a whisper: “I don’t mind, Daddy, if you don’t mind.”’ After his death, when Susan read the diaries, needing to flesh things out for her memoir, she was pretty surprised by the general tone and content, and ‘not only’, as Bailey writes, ‘because of the gloomy, relentless sexual stuff’. The New Yorker and Knopf paid $1.2 million for the rights to publish the diaries and they appeared in 1991. Mary Cheever, who had stayed with him until the end, did not read them. ‘I didn’t have any strong feelings about whether they were published or not. I can’t read them. Snatches of them I’ve read, but I can’t sit down and read that stuff. It isn’t my life at all. It’s him, it’s all him. It’s all inside him.’