John Cheever, Underappreciated, Gets a Boost

A year or so ago, I was sitting in a Manhattan bar with A group of friends, and when the waiter arrived with the drinks, the talk turned to John Cheever (someone had ordered a martini). "I remember when his collected stories came out," one woman said. "My parents had it. Everyone we knew owned a copy." Several others vividly recalled that 1978 book with its arresting red cover—a dust jacket bright as a stoplight, visible across the room—on the bookshelves of their homes and the homes of their friends. On the train home that night to Westchester County, the same suburban enclave Cheever once lived in and wrote about, I thought of a much-quoted passage from Cheever's introduction to that collection. "These stories seem at times to be stories of a long lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light," he wrote, "when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat." He was talking about the post–World War II years, the 20-year period when he wrote most of his stories. I smiled to think that just as surely as Benny Goodman and hats summed up one period, Cheever's own collected stories had become a symbol of the late '70s. Is he, I wondered, that iconic?

He is, if posthumous publications are any evidence. This month sees the appearance of a massive new biography, the first in 20 years and also the first to make extensive use of his journals and letters, which document his struggles with alcoholism, depression and bisexuality. Concurrently, the Library of America is publishing two volumes of Cheever's work, one for his five novels and one that gathers the 61 stories in the 1978 collection, a handful of essays and selections from his earliest work, including his first published story, "Expelled," written when he was 18. The Library of America is about as close as we get to a canon of great American literature these days, so three decades after he died, at 70 in 1982, Cheever is getting the Rushmore treatment.

I doubt, though, that the Library of America volumes will have anything like the impact of the publication of the collected stories, which garnered great reviews, sold more than 120,000 copies in hardback (an astonishing figure for a book of stories) and earned Cheever a Pulitzer (also a rarity for stories). Biographer Blake Bailey doesn't think so either. In an afterword to his huge (770 pages) "Cheever: A Life," Bailey says, "Cheever is hardly taught in the classroom, where reputations are perpetuated, and dissertations featuring his work have trickled almost to nothing." All his books are still in print, but the novels sell sluggishly, while "The Stories of John Cheever" sells about 5,000 copies a year, "excellent for a book of stories," Bailey points out, but "negligible for a classic of the postwar era." Plainly this is an author whose reputation needs a boost.

Literary reputation is a funny thing, rising and falling with no warning. Why should Cheever suffer eclipse while an author such as the late Richard Yates enjoys a renaissance? Yates and Cheever wrote about a lot of the same sorts of people and a lot of the same terrain. Yates, if anything, was a much bleaker writer. Similarly, "Mad Men," the hit television series about '60s advertising, casts domestic life in such a Cheever-esque light that it should be paying royalties to the author's estate. But it's a good bet that most of that show's fans wouldn't recognize Cheever's name, much less his influence. To further complicate things, Cheever slots into no single literary niche, always a problem for a writer when it comes to reputation. The literary scholar Robert Morace notes that critics have variously labeled Cheever a "satirist, a transcendentalist, an existentialist, a social critic, a religious writer, a trenchant moralist, an Enlightened Puritan, an Episcopalian anarch, a suburban realist, Ovid in Ossining, the American Chekhov, the American Trollope for an age of angst, a toothless Thurber." In other words, he was complicated, and so he has become a writer more remembered than read, and not even remembered all that accurately.

When I tell people where I live, they often say, "Oh, Cheever country." I just nod, because the truth would take too long. The short version is, no, I don't, because Cheever country doesn't exist any longer. I live not five miles from Ossining, the Hudson River town where Cheever spent the better part of his adult life. But I search in vain on my train for people who might populate his stories. There are certainly still commuters from the leafy towns bordering the city, but only a few are harried, WASPy businessmen lugging battered leather briefcases. The days when cadres of men (in hats) shuttled back and forth to the city, when wives stayed home all day and met their husbands at the door with a shaker of martinis while the cook fed the children and put them to bed—that's a thing of the past. The conformist, homogeneous cast that once formed the core of Cheever's stock company has been replaced by a plural, motley community that subscribes to no single orthodox code of belief or behavior. The satirist's subject has vanished, the anxieties that gave his stories a lot of their pop are your father's anxieties, not yours.

For that matter, the world Cheever describes may never have existed quite as he wrote about it. He himself was no commuter. The last full-time job he ever held was in the Army, from which he was released in 1945. He was certainly not wealthy until the end of his life, and frequently he lived from one New Yorker check to the next. He saw his world from the outside, imagining what it was like, or what he wanted it to be. He was a husband and father, to be sure, and a man who knew a lot more than anyone should about sexual insecurity and drinking way, way too much and the nastiness of families gone off the rails. But he was certainly no Chekhov, if by that we mean a writer of serene intelligence who saw humanity clearly and dispassionately. I reread the stories while I plowed through Bailey's judicious biography (which somehow manages to be both fascinating and too long—I kept wishing he'd taken another year or two to distill what he knew, although mostly I just wished that Cheever hadn't been such an alcoholic bore). Repeatedly, I was struck by how often Cheever projected his own sadness and anxiety onto characters who usually lack his own sense of self-reflection and intelligence. Sometimes he convinces us that the world is what he says it is, but just as often, he sounds like an author with an ax to grind, who begrudges his characters happiness out of stinginess or envy and who drags them through the mud because mud is all he knows.

Lonely, alienated men and women in mangled marriages, sad and wary children who watch from doorways and the top of the stairs—we meet them in New York City apartments, and then, after Cheever moved his family to the suburbs, in the leafy lanes and Dutch colonials of Westchester. His characters are nearly all cut from the same pattern. There is not all that much to distinguish, say, Johnny Hake in "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" from Neddy Merrill in "The Swimmer." But as his stories get under our skins like a dream from which we wake in a cold sweat, as they, in a word, succeed, we begin to see that it makes no sense to judge Cheever by the ordinary yardsticks of fiction. And as with dreams, it is all but impossible to say what makes them work—it is not even clear that Cheever himself knew. When a story was succeeding for him, he barely blotted a line. When it wasn't, he often threw it away.

Cheever is and is not a great writer. There are easily a dozen stories in the Library of America collection that rank with the best short fiction of the last century. But for every "Five-Forty-Eight" or "Death of Justina," there are five more that seem thin or obvious—and probably seem thinner and more obvious than they should, because Cheever's stock was once so over-valued (one reviewer hailed the publication of the collected stories as a "grand occasion in English literature"). Still, a dozen great stories is a sterling record by any reckoning, and when he was good, he was very, very good, capable of breaking your heart, cracking you up and scaring you silly, all in the same paragraph. The novels are every bit as uneven as the stories. But the two Wapshot novels, though messy and episodic, remain delightful, particularly the sections that dwell on the southern Massachusetts shoreline towns where he grew up. They are funny, relaxed, melancholy but ultimately wonderful. Writing about the Wapshots, most of whom were based on members of his own family, he seems, for once, to be enjoying himself, and the pleasure is contagious.

If there is a recognizable template for Cheever's fiction, it is the fairy tale. We do not know much more about Jim and Irene Westcott, the couple in "The Enormous Radio," than we know about Hansel and Gretel, but we want desperately to find out how they'll contend with their new console radio that pipes their neighbors' conversations into their apartment. The Westcotts are like people bewitched, and here, as in so many of these stories, circumstance, not character, is the driving force. In "The Music Teacher," Cheever goes so far as to baldly identify the title character as a witch. And "The Swimmer's" protagonist, a man whose life slips away while he isn't looking, could easily claim kin with Rip Van Winkle, another character with a bad marriage whose creator hailed, not so coincidentally, from Tarrytown, two stops down the train line from Ossining.

When a thunderstorm rumbles down the Hudson River valley, I have no trouble hearing those crashing ninepins that Rip heard centuries ago. And at the end of even the lousiest day, when I gaze into the twilight settling like a beneficent mantle on the Palisades across the river, I, too, am tempted to agree with Cheever that here is a place "where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains." The light in the yellow leaves of autumn, the smell of mud flats at low tide—in such things he found a redemptive quality. "The setting seems in some way to be at the heart of the matter," he wrote in "Bullet Park," but he could have written that sentence in every story and novel. To the extent that Cheever country is not some mythic or metaphorical realm but a real world of rocks, trees, streams and lawns bathed in a lambent light, I am happy to call it home and happily in the debt of the man who put it all into words that are, as far as I can see, as durable as the things they describe.