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Cheeveresque Revisited

Posted: 06/11/2012 1:25 pm

The Collected Works of John Cheever
The Library of America
$70.00, hardcover, two volumes (slip case), 1973 pgs.

In the late '70s, you couldn't go anywhere without seeing the red cover of The Stories of John Cheever the Pulitzer Prize winning collection of the writer's stories that had been delighting readers of The New Yorker for decades. His commuter world deftly reflecting fast shifting post WWII mores. His gallery of disillusioned characters traversing metro and suburban landscapes was full of prose poetry and no small amount of jaundiced social commentary.

As much as Cheever delved into the psychosexual torpor of his characters, his own personal problems were largely hidden. After his death in 1982, the publication of his memoirs and diaries exposed his train-wreck of a personal life. The revelations came from every corner, including his daughter Susan's book Home Before Dark, a portrait of the revered man of letters as a self-absorbed alcoholic, a distant father, and an emotionally abusive husband who cheated on his wife with men.

The Cheever literary legacy is fogged with a lot of this hubris, but now 35 years later, it is a good time to revisit Cheever, the master of the short story form and prescient, for better and worse, ahead of the curve writing 'magic realism.'

In 2009, the release of a comprehensive biography by Blake Bailey examined Cheever in all of his complexity vis-à-vis his literary life. Bailey is also editor of the handsomeThe Collected Works of John Cheever, published this spring by the Library of America.

Collected Stories and Other Writings includes all of the previously collected stories and seven from his first book The Way Some People Live. There are also other stories he wrote for magazines early in his career, including his student piece 'Expelled' his first story from 1930, published when he was 18, which brought him to the attention of literary titan Malcolm Cowley.

For Cheever fans, this is a vital and fascinating trove. His magic is undimmed in such works as 'Goodbye, My Brother' a visceral portrait of a family of strangers who reunite by the sea. Cheever has the indelible ability to let his characters live so vividly within his story that there is constant surprise and sensual mystery that makes them all the more real. He can penetrate the complexity of any character in a moment or over pages, without the need to nail them to the wall.

The cache of short masterworks -- 'The Geometry of Love' 'City of Broken Dreams' 'The Five Forty Eight' 'The Sorrows of Gin' 'Just Tell Me Who It Was' 'Metamorphoses' 'The Enormous Radio' and "The Swimmer" of course, still transporting. They also intoxicate with sardonic drama, sensorial imagery, not to mention the precision and economy of the vocabulary.

The series of essays and fragments that constitute other writings include a brilliant essay where Cheever writes about F. Scott Fitzgerald. He assesses the great writer's ravaged career and observes haltingly about "darkness and fatigue that sometimes appears in a writer's last work." Without doubt in his later work Cheever loses some of his luster. His series of stories written in Rome may have been colorful at the time but read now as failed experiments. He, in fact, seems bored. It is fascinating from a literary standpoint, but it is easy to track the loss of his creative energy into more of a commodity, peppered with brittle finesse.

Revisiting the collection's volume of his Complete Novels is fascinating partly because, by the time he was writing them, Cheever had so many problems, it was amazing that he could have the wherewithal to produce bestselling long fiction. The Wapshot Chronicle took 15 years, and reads now as a shape-shifting masterpiece. Even with dazzling narrative inventions and memorable characters, that novel and its sequel The Wapshot Scandal now read as padded and quaint in many respects. In contrast Bullet Park, written in 1969, holds up the best in many ways, but is self-sabotaging -- Cheever's plot convolutions taking over character integrity. The New York Times review condemned it as structurally 'gluey.'

Another troubling aspect to his later work is his use of questionable gay characters. His approach is full of stereotyping, not to mention a deeply cynical tone. It is most disappointing in Falconer a work that landed him on the cover of Newsweek and was hailed as the great American novel.

Falconer was viewed as a personal breakthrough for Cheever too, which was largely viewed as a veiled coming out tale. Its potency in hindsight seems tied up with revelations about his private life, his veiled attempt to absolve himself in print by confronting his own demons by creating the Dantesque fantasia of a prison.

Cheever's sympathetic rogues are sketchy and their wending tales capable of only flashes of inspired prose. The book is otherwise smothered in rhetoric indulgence and a ginned up need to write fetid prison sex scenarios that strike one as juvenile. Even though his lead character is serving time for killing his brother, he finds redemption in a prison love affair. Both in the book and in life Cheever remained guarded and squirrelly about his sexuality. His last novel Oh, What a Paradise It Seems has both a valedictory, retired tone, and when you least expect it, you light upon an altogether transporting Cheeveresque vista.

 

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