Friday, March 6, 2009

Quote of the Day (John Cheever, on Mankind’s Loneliness and Confusion)

“How lonely and unnatural man is and how deep and well-concealed are his confusions.”—John Cheever, “The Leaves, the Lion-Fish, and the Bear,” quoted in John Updike, “Basically Decent: A Big Biography of John Cheever,” The New Yorker, March 9, 2009

Twenty-eight years ago, in an interview for my college newspaper, Frank MacShane puckishly told me he had been nicknamed “the biographer of the stepchildren of literature.” That’s a natural label, I suppose, when you’ve written about the lives of Raymond Chandler, John O’Hara and James Jones, all critically undervalued at the time of that writing.

I was surprised to find out this past week that Blake Bailey appears to have taken on that mantle for a new generation. First came his biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty, five years ago; now comes a life story of another Fifties chronicler of suburbia, Cheever: A Life.

To my surprise, I learned from Charles McGrath’s article on the novelist-short story writer this past weekend in The New York Times Magazine, “The First Suburbanite--the man who claimed post-World War II suburbia as his distinct literary province before Yates, John Updike, or the writers of Mad Men—has fallen into something like neglect. I write “surprise” because you never dream of this happening to a Pulitzer Prize winner acclaimed as a modern master of the short story at the time of his death.

And yet, that’s precisely what has befallen Cheever—ironically enough, because of the work that contains much of his most painful yet lyrical prose: his Journals. The revelations in that posthumously issued work—not just of his alcoholism but of his guilt-ridden homosexuality—have overshadowed the luminous words in which they were disclosed. The writer—so careful to maintain his image, as McGrath calls it, “of burgher and family man”—would be horrified to discover that his sexual secrets had even become fodder for a 1992 Seinfeld episode. (That’s another thing he has in common with Yates, besides a biographer—as I noted in an earlier post, Yates served as the model for Elaine’s crusty writer dad on the long-running sitcom.)

You can feel the distaste for the seeminess of the life revealed at such length in Updike’s posthumous review of Bailey’s biography of his old friend in this week’s New Yorker, in the article from which I’ve quoted above.

To refocus attention on what really matters—his work—Cheever’s surviving children have authorized Bailey’s biography, and the Library of America is reissuing Cheever’s short stories and novels. Good. Maybe then readers will re-discover—or find out for the first time—that Cheever is a not-unworthy successor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, another fiction writer whose wistfully romantic prose contrasts so sharply with a tortured, drunken daily existence.

Both men’s works, I think, should be looked to by anyone tortured by addiction and depression. The joy Cheever feels to be inside a church on Sunday, for instance, feels so much sweeter after a long weekend of fighting off the urge to run for the bottle by noon. His work and life recall the Leonard Cohen lines from “Anthem”:

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

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