The full title of this book is Home Before Dark: A Biographical Memoir of John Cheever by His Daughter. Are people still reading John Cheever’s stories and novels? I hope so. Years ago, on my mother’s recommendation, I read The Wapshot Chronicle and The Wapshot Scandal Although I no longer remember the plots, I do remember the settings and the tone and a few of the incidents. Cheever was the dark poet of suburban life in the1950s. The New York Times referred to him as “the Chekhov of the suburbs.” For many years he wrote short stories, dozens of which were published in the New Yorker; many of his stories won awards. But he felt that unless he could write novels as well, he would not be a fully accomplished writer, hence, eventually, the two novels set in the fictional New England town of Wapshot. Other novels followed.
In Home Before Dark, his daughter Susan remembers her father and the life she and her family led in his egocentric orbit. Cheever was not easy to live with: he was needy, self-absorbed and plagued by feelings of inadequacy. Alcoholism eventually ruined his health. He wasn’t a faithful husband. Finances were a problem for many years. He received many honors for his writing but those awards never brightened his life for long.
Here’s an example of his graceful descriptive writing, from a letter to his soon-to-be wife Mary Winternitz while he was living in Saratoga Springs: “Everyone asks me if I’m going to come up here to live. If you liked the place it would be a possibility. It’s a raucous, genial, half-town, half-big-city. Main Street on a windy night is a lonely and desolate place, but there are at least five cozy bars full of civilized people. The race track has left this whistle stop with a lot of urbane graces. Rents are low, and credit at the grocers’ seems to be inexhaustible.” It’s easy to visualize Main Street at night with a thin man in a trench coat and a slouch hat pushed along on a windy sidewalk from one bar to another. Can you see how Edward Hopper or George Bellows would have painted it?
Susan Cheever writes that her father’s gift was his “intense concentration on what you can see and hear and smell and touch. He focused on the surface and texture of life, not on the emotions and motives underneath.” His talent was that those surfaces and textures told all we needed to know.
Like many writers, Cheever had demons, demons that drove him to write and to drink. He wrote in his journal, “I see a world of monsters and beasts; my grasp on creative and wholesome things is gone…How far I have come, I think but I do not seem to have come far at all. I am haunted by some morbid conception of beauty-cum-death for which I am prepared to destroy myself. And so I think that life is a contest, that the forces of good and evil are strenuous and apparent, and that while my self-doubt is profound, nearly absolute, the only thing I have to proceed on is an invisible thread. So I proceed on this.”
Cheever’s writing reminds me of John Updike, also a master at short stories. (My father gave me a copy of Pigeon Feathers, one of Updike’s first short story collections, when I graduated from high school. I read Updike’s short stories for years. I still have several ripped from the pages of the New Yorker in the late 1960s.)