October 27, 2010

Book reviews: "The Stories of John Cheever" and "Cheever: A Life," by Blake Bailey

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The Stories of John Cheever

Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey

The Stories of John Cheever
By John Cheever

Cheever: A Life
By Blake Bailey
Borzoi / Alfred A. Knopf

As a general rule, it can be said that the newer an artistic movement, the more difficult it is to fully understand it, because of a lack of both historical distance and "how it really happened" stories regarding important turning points; given this, then, I suppose it's safe to call Postmodernism, history's last latest artistic movement, the most difficult one of all to understand*, starting with the fact that no one even agrees on when it exactly started and ended. After all, even its name indicates that it's mostly a reaction to the Modernist years that came before it (a long and much more easily defined movement, with its beginnings going all the way back to the dawn of the 20th century), a rebellion against the skinny ties and suburban niceties of the post-WW2 years; and so that lets some argue that the seeds of Postmodernism lie all the way back with the Beat poets of the 1950s, while others claim that the movement didn't really start until the civil-rights marches and obscenity-law trials of the Kennedy early-'60s, while yet others say that the movement didn't really come into its own until Woodstock and the other events of the late-'60s and early-'70s countercultural era.

No matter what the case, though, you can definitely count John Cheever as an important part of this process, because much like Elvis, he was an active artist through all three of these decades, and with the public seeing him in very different ways over the years -- first in the '50s as a brilliantly intellectual judge of character and a firm product of Modernism itself, then in the '60s as a middle-aged boozy square who no longer had anything relevant to say about society, then finally in the '70s as a prescient genius, who decades before had predicted against conventional wisdom the rotting-out of the American System that had finally caught up to the rest of the country by then. And that's the ironic thing, as seen in the new Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey, which in fact is the first major biography of Cheever ever written; that Cheever was in some ways all three of these personas at once, in other ways none of them, his true personality blended over the years with so many lies and pretty stories that it eventually became impossible for anyone to figure out where the boundaries laid, even Cheever himself. His is a mostly tragic story, albeit with a happy ending, a man with complicated views about class and sexuality in an era that didn't permit such public discussions, which made his own life a living hell much of the time but that gave us some of the best literature ever written in the last 50 years.

Because that's the first thing to know about Cheever if you don't already, the most notorious thing about him (as most plainly evidenced in the running storyline from the old TV show Seinfeld regarding a character's family cabin burning down) -- that he was actively bisexual for almost the entire course of his life, actively closeted about it as well, with a complicated and self-hating attitude about that part of his desires, a person who sincerely couldn't stand the company of effeminate, queeny men but was compulsively driven to have sex with them anyway, which then flavors the tone and meaning of nearly everything he wrote, in a way that simply wasn't obvious to his original set of fans back when the stories were first coming out. And that of course is another important thing to know about Cheever, something I didn't realize myself until reading Bailey's impeccably researched 800-page doorstop of a bio -- that despite being so closely associated with the '70s by now, because of his late-career successes, Cheever actually started publishing way back in the 1930s, and spent his youth paling around with such revered Early Modernists as e.e. cummings and Walker Evans; and that despite putting out a handful of novels over his life that were all critical and commercial successes, what he will forever be mostly known for are the several hundred short stories he wrote over the course of five decades, considered by many to be some of the best short fiction in human history, and one of the serially published writers at The New Yorker (they put out 119 of his stories) to help initially define their now well-known style.

That's why I ended up reading The Stories of John Cheever as I was reading Bailey's bio as well**, the notorious '70s compilation which is what now makes him so associated with that particular decade (it won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same year, the only book in history to do so, and just a few years before his death at that); and I have to say, the double-reading was fascinating, in that the vast majority of his stories turn out to be autobiographical, and it was intensely interesting to see just which aspects of these mostly Modernist suburban nightmares came straight from the events of his real Modernist suburban nightmare life. And in fact, it's no coincidence at all that the current hit television show Mad Men originally had its early-'60s main characters living in Ossining, New York, the exact city where Cheever lived in real life in the early '60s; because now that I've read them myself, I realize that Mad Men is in many ways simply a "Tales of the City"-style anthology series of Cheever's short work, only done now with a visual sophistication and maturity that broadcast media simply couldn't get away with in Cheever's own lifetime.

Like I said, this is what gave Cheever such a big following in the first place, because he was the messenger of insightful but uncomfortable truths about society at a time when literature was the only medium allowed to get away with it; and as Mad Men now metaphorically shows us, the reason Cheever got away with it in the repressive '50s (and the reason he was called the "Chekhov of the Suburbs" throughout his early career) was that the simplistic audiences of those years thought he was merely discussing dysfunctional families and marriages that had turned sour, not even guessing until two decades later that what he was really describing was the corrosive nature of the entire Cold-War American society itself, a massive group lie about Leave-It-To-Beaver "nuclear families" that instantly crumbled in the '70s when enough people finally turned a critical eye towards it. (In fact, speaking of the Cold War, one of the many interesting things I learned in Bailey's biography was that Cheever tried numerous unsuccessful times to write some post-apocalyptic fiction in the Mid-Century Modernist years, both serious in nature like On the Beach and blackly funny like Dr. Strangelove, a genre I'm convinced he would've been brilliant at if he could've just stayed sober long enough to finish one of them.)

And that of course is the third major thing to know about Cheever, that all this deceit and dysfunction drove him to become one of the biggest alcoholics you'll ever hear of; and this is obviously a big part of why his career took such a nosedive in the '60s, not only because he was so drunk all the time (plastered most days by 10:30 a.m., according to his journals), but also because by then he had become the living embodiment of what the "flower children" were rebelling against -- the worn-out, gin-filled, fifty-something white male in a cheap wrinkled suit, forever yelling at his teenage children to "get a haircut, you hippies." It's the part of Bailey's biography that will break your heart, full of imagery that's right out of a bad melodrama; for example, I just dare you not to wince when reading the part about a suffering middle-aged Cheever living in a squalid studio apartment while teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop, too drunk most days to do anything in class besides incoherently mumble, who would make awkward passes at straight students thirty years his junior and regularly get caught trying to walk naked down the late-night winter streets of Iowa in a blackout fugue.

But like I said, Cheever's story does thankfully end on a happy note, which is the biggest irony of all -- that the open calling of hypocrisy that he and his peers did in the '50s, which led to the social revolutions of the '60s, had produced a world by the '70s that let him finally be the proudly 12-stepping, comfortably out, shy little nerd he had always privately been (or at least as "comfortably out" as a self-hating sixty-something grandfather raised during Modernism could be), which came right at the same time as this aforementioned new praise for his long out-of-date stories, as well as a brand-new novel (a gay love story set in a prison!) that quickly became the most lucrative title of his entire career. And that's a nice thing to see, frankly, in a world where most forward-thinking artists die in the poverty-stricken, forgotten state that Cheever almost did; it's nice to see a truly deserving person actually survive something like that, not only to eventually see his vision of the world finally catch up with everyone else, but also the world become a place where he could finally live his life simply and honestly for the first time since childhood.

Cheever still has a lot to tell us about the human condition, in a bitterly funny and sometimes breathtakingly beautiful way, which alone makes his work still worth visiting and revisiting; but more importantly, with each passing year he is looking more and more like the most astute chronicler ever of the Postmodernist movement, the one person who best explains not how the world officially worked in the '50s, '60s and '70s but how the average person secretly wanted it to work, and the various ways that American society let so many people down in those years, in its collective obsessive desire to redefine itself in a superpower era. Both his original work and Bailey's superlative biography come highly recommended.

Out of 10: 9.5

Read even more about The Stories of John Cheever: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Read even more about Cheever: A Life: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*Or, well, I guess really the most difficult artistic movement of all to understand is the one we're currently going through, which I claim started around 9/11 and is marked mostly by the quest for sincerity and authenticity, which is why I call it "Sincerism;" but there are lots of people who disagree that such a movement even exists, so we'll leave that debate for another time.

**Incidentally, over at Goodreads.com I posted Twitter-sized reviews of many of Cheever's stories in real time as I was reading them, for those who want to check out my thoughts on them in further detail.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:23 PM, October 27, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |