Revisiting John Cheever's Suburban Unrest
Twenty-seven years after his death, the life and work of writer John Cheever are once again in the spotlight. The award-winning author is the subject of a thick new biography — Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey — and all of his novels and most of his stories have just been republished in the Library of America volume John Cheever: Collected Stories and Novels.
Perhaps best known for the witty, sharp-edged stories he originally published in The New Yorker about life in the tony East Coast suburbs, the author moved from New York City to Westchester, N.Y., in 1951 to accommodate his growing family. As he explained to talk-show host Dick Cavett in 1981: The "problems of housing were much more simply answered in the suburbs."
But the upside of life in the suburbs didn't stop Cheever from writing about its downside. In his 1960 story, "The Death of Justina," one of the narrator's in-laws dies on his living room sofa. When the narrator tries to arrange for her funeral, the mayor tells him that his part of town — with its two-acre lots — is not zoned for dying, and that "the importance of zoning can't be overestimated."
The oldest of John Cheever's three children, Susan, was 8 when the family moved to Westchester. She says that since her father's death, a lot has been made of his alcoholism — which, she points out, he conquered — and his affairs with women and men. But, she adds, too much of what's been written ignores her father's lighter side.
"Many times in my father's house, people thought it was a medical emergency, because we were laughing so hard," Susan Cheever says. "Not only was he the funniest man you ever met, but he also took incredible delight in the most ordinary things. He loved to put the dogs in the car and take them to Carvel and buy them ... ice cream sandwiches."
In her 1984 memoir, Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever describes her family as "exiles in America," never quite fitting in, despite a family history that goes back to 1637, when the first Cheever arrived in Boston.
It's a sentiment echoed by the narrator of "The Death of Justina":
I stand, figuratively, with one wet foot on Plymouth Rock, looking with some delicacy, not into a formidable and challenging wilderness but onto a half-finished civilization embracing glass towers, oil derricks, suburban continents and abandoned movie houses and wondering why, in this most prosperous, equitable, and accomplished world — where even the cleaning women practice the Chopin preludes in their spare time — everyone should seem to be so disappointed?
Disappointment with suburban life was a constant theme of Cheever's work — one that biographer Blake Bailey traces back to the author's youth. Bailey, who was asked by the Cheever family to write the biography, spent five years working on Cheever: A Life. He's the first writer to be given complete access to Cheever's 4,300 pages of single-spaced, typed journals, which detail every aspect of the author's chameleon-like private life.
"Cheever felt that perhaps the biggest downside of living in the American suburbs was that there was sort of this terrible imperative to seem happy," says Bailey.
Born in the suburbs of Quincy, Mass., in 1912, Cheever grew up poor, the son of a shoe salesman who lost all his money in the mid 1920s when the textile industry in New England collapsed. He suffered at the hands of his upper middle class neighbors who, says Bailey, "snickered behind his parents' back."
Bailey describes Cheever as a genius with no formal education. He was kicked out of prep school, and later wrote and published a story about the incident when he was just 18.
"He had read Proust — when he was 14. All the major Modernists. He had read Ulysses," says Bailey. "He was not only the ultimate autodidact as a writer, but he was also self-invented as a human personality."
Cheever reinvented himself for the first time when he moved from the Massachusetts suburbs to a West Village boarding house in New York City at age 22. Bailey says the author lived a "hand-to-mouth existence, with no fixed address for some 10 years," during which time he indulged his bisexuality and "drank all he wanted."
Once Cheever became an established writer — with work published in The New Yorker, "that's when the sort of quasi-aristocratic persona begins to develop," says Bailey.
Cheever's attention to the suburbs caused his reputation to fade in the 1960s, when the nation's social issues seemed more pertinent than suburban angst. But his daughter Susan says her father's critics were missing the point.
"His themes were that intense combination of darkness and light that characterizes all of our lives if we will see it," says Susan. "And I think that's what makes the stories so powerful."
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