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David Finkle

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Over a Cheever, Under a Cheever

Posted: 05/04/09 02:15 PM ET

John Cheever died on Friday, June 18, 1982. I suppose I learned about it the next day when I read the New York Times obituary, although perhaps I got the news in a television account. I'm not sure which. What I am certain of is that when I learned about Cheever's demise, I cried. I'm not ashamed to say so, though I'll add it was a first for me: crying over the death of an author, that is.

I'll also admit the tears weren't for Cheever. They were for myself. My thought was, "I'll never read anything new from Cheever again." That's what was breaking my heart, because by then I'd been reading him for 25 years -- the abundant New Yorker short stories, the five pithy novels -- and ranked him in the top echelon of 20th-century American writers. I was hardly alone. John Updike -- with whom Cheever had an ambivalent friendship -- said in his eulogy, "America will miss him, the leading fabulist of his time."

Updike, whom many considered the new Cheever when he began publishing in The New Yorker, was right on the "leading fabulist" but turns out to be wrong about the "American will miss him"--a sobering fact brought home to me by Blake Bailey's splendid and exhaustive new biography, Cheever: A Life.

In its 770 pages (that includes index, notes and acknowledgments), Bailey mentions, I'm sure mournfully, that Cheever isn't read much today. (Is Hemingway? Faulkner? O'Hara? Maybe Fitzgerald?) He reports this and then comments: The Stories of John Cheever sells about five thousand copies a year -- excellent for a book of stories, negligible for a classic of the postwar era."

And these are the short stories that stopped me in my tracks when I first read them and have the same effect each time I reread them. Had I been asked whether they are still widely read, I might have perhaps guessed not all that widely, but I wouldn't have speculated that Cheever is all but forgotten. Had I thought about it more realistically, I might have guessed as much. Maybe I just don't want to admit to myself that a man whose writing has meant so much to me is forgotten -- doesn't appear on today's reading-club lists or college syllabuses. Maybe I don't want to accept that what I might have described as "deathless prose" lies on library shelves collecting dust.

Although Cheever was often described as "the Chekhov of the suburbs," I was reading his stories before I'd read Chekhov. (Notice that the trend today is to drop the "short" because it's assumed to be a stigma.) You could say that when I began reading the revered Russian doctor, he was, to me, "The Cheever of the steppes." What I responded to in Cheever -- along with the views of woeful bedroom-community marriages and disgruntled families -- was his depiction of men past their youth trying to deny that unhappy inevitability. What I responded to was the prose burnished to a golden gleam. I clung to stories -- The New Yorker eventually published 121 of them! -- like "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," "O Youth and Beauty!" and "The Swimmer," which became a Burt Lancaster movie.

What never occurred to me when I was first devouring Cheever's output was how much of the discontent was based on his life, how much he was able to transmute the enduring pain of an unhappy existence into a brilliant canon. It never struck me for the simple reason that I had no understanding of fiction's core impetus. When I got older, I was further thrown off by Cheever's mocking what he termed "crypto-autobiographical" fiction.

Eventually, I did learn of his unceasing discontents. I remember, especially, deciding after reading his 1977 novel, Falconer, that the love story involving two prison inmates couldn't have been written by someone completely devoid of homosexual feelings. Cheever's homosexuality was not publicly acknowledged at the time, but my hunch explained at least part of the basis for his discontents.

Bailey's Cheever supplies the rest in dismaying detail. Cheever's life, which produced such gorgeous literature, was miserable in large part because for so long he fought his proclivities. He only partially relieved his despair by making of the stories metaphors for his asphyxiating repressions. For the most part, he remained closeted, even harshly homophobic. Updike, who coined the "leading fabulist" encomium, also said, "Rarely has a gifted and creative life seemed sadder." And now made even sadder by so few readers for the available proof of that "gifted and creative life."

My tears at Cheever's death were premature, by the way. Within a year of his demise, his sublime final novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, was published. But now with few readers, the paradise that is Cheever's writing is at risk of being a lost paradise.