Short story writer John Cheever,
late 1950s/early 1960s.
(Photo courtesy of
Library of Congress)
AN ASTUTE OBSERVER OF PEOPLE
AND PLACE (AND WEATHER)
[Recently, on a social network site called My Staten Island Life (mystatenislandlife.com), a neighbor requested recommendations for a summer reading list. What follows was my response.]
I'm an excruciatingly slow reader, made even slower--if we're talking about printed materials--by the fact that I now do so much of my reading online. Even worse, probably, for the purposes of your list, I read very little fiction. And what fiction I read tends to take the form of the short story. Which brings me to the short story-related book I'm reading now and the one I read before that. I recommend both.
NOW: The Journals of John Cheever. BEFORE THAT: The recently published Cheever: A Life, a biography by Blake Bailey, the editor of the Library of America Cheever collection [publication details follow the text of this review].
Why Cheever? Because of his continually surprising and elegant use of language, principally; because of his acute powers of observation, and not only of people or place or human frailty more generally. Also surprising to me are his observations of weather, light and sky. More than stage-settings, these descriptions are intimate and deeply felt, evoking nature as a force in Cheever's life--something to be considered, recorded, remembered.
THE IMPERFECTIONS IN
SEEMINGLY PERFECT LIVES
Now, more than a quarter-century after his death, Cheever's representations of a certain class group in a certain place and time remain familiar territory to someone of my age. But because I grew up working class in the city, not upper middle-class in the suburbs, that territory will never lose its Otherness entirely.
Despite early critiques of corporate/suburban life (Sloan Wilson's rather sentimental "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," for example), Cheever was the first writer who revealed, at least to me, the imperfections in the lives lived by upper middle class white suburban families as they were broadly represented culturally at that time.
In his journals, which I'm reading now, we can see clearly the consciousness that yielded those astute and often sad insights into the lives of ordinary men and women. That consciousness was also a source of unremitting self-examination, of unsparing critical judgment and self-loathing that Cheever reserved for himself.
Despite his acute powers of discernment, Cheever seems to have been unable to acquit his wife of responsibility for their very difficult relationship until nearly the very end, when he quit drinking for good and indulged, sometimes very selfishly according to biographer Blake Bailey, the homosexual impulses he had anguished over for a lifetime.
For those with a taste for the salacious, neither the Bailey biography nor these journals disappoints. But in the end, it's Cheever's language and his keen powers of observation--not his anguish or excesses--that stop me in my tracks as a writer as well as a reader . . . as I look up from the page and repeat aloud a few words or a phrase I've just read, in a voice hardly above a whisper, extracting something more than meaning from the sound.
The Journals of John Cheever, edited by Robert Gottlieb, 399pp. Editior's note. Softcover. Vintage International, 2008. $16.95.