National Book Critics Circle Award, Biography, 2010
Here, for the first time, is the full and unforgettable life of John Cheever, written with unprecedented access to essential sources.Cheever was a soul in conflict, a high-school dropout who published his first story at 18, a dire alcoholic who recovered to write the great novel Falconer, a secret bisexual who struggled with his longings and his fierce homophobia, whose groundbreaking work landed him on the covers of Time and Newsweek, a man who believed in the power of family love and sexual pleasure, a man whose desperate loneliness was never wholly offset by his faith in the joy of creation.
Everyone has that friend who is kind of brilliant but mostly just a disaster who is to be put up with because it's terrifying to leave him or her alone for too long. John Cheever, prolific writer of Great American Stories, is the prototype for that friend. Do not be alarmed that the audio for Blake Bailey's masterwork touches the 28- hour mark; that's how long it ought to take to narrate the repeated meteoric rising and gin-soaked falling of the torn, lonely genius that was Cheever. This material is as good as any soap opera, and would be as unbelievable were it not for the confident New England grit in Malcom Hillgartner's narration.The author's unprecedented access to Cheever's journals and archival materials left no vulgar stone unturned, so Hillgartner has a lot of work to do. Bailey adheres so closely to the particulars of his research that every other sentence contains direct quotation from a diary or story, which Hillgartner inflects with ease each time. The subtlety of his pacing and pausing throughout the whole sordid tale is matched by his spot-on rendering of Cheever's entirely fake Boston Brahmin accent. This longing to be part of the wealthy upper crust is an ever-looming instinct in Bailey's psychological portrait, alongside Cheever's homophobia and corresponding self-loathing over his own repressed bisexuality.But anxiety about money and sex are only the foundations upon which Cheever's house of cards come tumbling down time after time; the devil is in the details. Bailey feels compassion for his subject but he also doesn't let a single ugly anecdote slip by unannounced. With civilized restraint, Hillgartner tirelessly narrates Bailey's 70 years in 50 chapters of familial uprising and literary infighting. Cheever himself thinly veiled many of these experiences in his writing, which Bailey usefully and tightly connects here. On the whole, this book verges on the sensational. While John Cheever would be delighted to know he's worth such an in-depth examination, he would also no doubt be horrified by what this particular examination reveals. It's Hillgartner's affectionate and responsible approach to the telling that keeps you rooting for Cheever all the way to his bitter end. Megan Volpert
"The most exquisite, compelling and heartbreaking life I've yet encountered. Blake Bailey doesn't merely write like an angel, he is an angel - he seamlessly resuscitates the past to make it live and breathe in the present, and he writes with all the power and authority of our finest novelists." (T.C. Boyle, author of The Women)
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What feast for Cheever enthusiasts!
all you ever wanted to know about Cheever
A great biography - and a lot of painful revelations about Cheever. I was always a fan of his short stories - but this book goes into details about the pain of creation, and failure, and family life, too. It's too bad Cheever is not more widely read.
Updike is the natural pair for cheever. Same generation, slightly different feel.