In the first great flowering of his career, in the 1950s and '60s, John Cheever was, to all appearances, the crown prince of normality. The wife and three children, the faithful retrievers, the rambling old house in Ossining, N.Y. in all its outward signs, his life was commensurate with his role as the man who was, with John Updike, the esteemed chronicler of the postwar suburbs. But if you came to his fiction expecting sunlit scenes of American life, you were mistaken. Though his work was shot through with the beauty and abundance of the world, of suburban "nights where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains," there was also failure and weakness at every turn. The men were poorly equipped for life; the women were treacherous; children died. (See the top 10 John Updike books.)
So it wasn't entirely surprising to discover, after his death at age 70 in 1982, that for much of his life Cheever was miserable, a petulant, belittling husband; a difficult father; and a severe alcoholic tormented by his secret bisexuality. We learned a lot about this from his journals, 400 pages of lyric abjection published eight years after his death, in which he fears becoming the "lonely boy with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people's contentment and vitality." But we get a much fuller and more reliable picture in Blake Bailey's fine new biography Cheever: A Life (Knopf; 770 pages), a portrait of the man drawn judiciously but compellingly and in harrowing detail. (Read TIME's 1964 cover story about John Cheever.)
Cheever grew up in the Greater Boston shore town of Quincy. His father was a traveling shoe salesman successful enough for a while to keep his family in middling Yankee splendor a big house, good schools for John and his older brother Fred. But by the mid-1920s, as Cheever reached his teens, the shoe business was tanking, and his father was increasingly drunk and adrift. To make ends meet, his mother opened a gift shop that Cheever would describe as "an abysmal humiliation," at least for him. The big house would be lost anyway; his mother would shed her feckless husband and eventually drink herself to death a motif in the family story.
When Cheever flunked out of Thayer Academy at 17, it was the end of his formal education. He promptly fictionalized the experience into a story that was purchased by the New Republic. One year a dropout, the next a published writer and within a decade, a fixture in the pages of the New Yorker. By the mid-'60s the prizes and (sometimes) money were also rolling in from his first two novels. But by that time, on most mornings he was scuttling to the liquor cabinet right after breakfast to "scoop" the day's first gin.
The key to Cheever's troubled nature was his fear of being "a small and dirty fraud," an impostor in his social pretensions and, especially, his sexuality. The suburban squire was just a shopkeeper's son. And though he took a sincere, even intense, sexual interest in women, it was impossible to superintend his wayward libido, which kept pointing him toward men.
Cheever drank himself right to the edge of the abyss but drew back. In 1975 he quit drinking for good. Chastened and sober, he completed Falconer, a magnificent novel of sin and redemption that hinges on a homosexual relationship. One year later, a collection of his short stories became a best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize. He even made a sort of peace with his sexual appetites.
At the time of his death, Cheever's lasting fame seemed the safest of safe bets. But 27 years later, his star has dimmed. Bailey says part of the problem is that Cheever's work hasn't been embraced by academics, the gatekeepers of the canon. It might help that the Library of America, which has its own role in picking the immortals, has just admitted Cheever into its canon. In its new two-volume collection of his work, edited by Bailey, you hear Cheever's sly, lambent voice everywhere. Is it true the professors won't make room for him? Open to any page of these two books and you'll know why they're wrong.