Cheever: A Life
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Cheever: A Life

4.14 of 5 stars 4.14  ·  rating details  ·  400 ratings  ·  106 reviews
"I might be forgotten tomorrow," John Cheever once told an interviewer, adding, "it wouldn't bother me in the least." This tight-lipped observer might have been lying, but there is little doubt that the long-lived (1912–82) author who won nearly every extant literary award would be appalled that he is now best remembered in many circles for his bisexuality and a Seinfeld s...more
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Published February 27th 2009 by Blackstone Audio, Inc. (first published 2009)
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Jeffrey Keeten
“For me a page of good prose is where one hears the rain. A page of good prose is when one hears the noise of battle.... A page of good prose seems to me the most serious dialogue that well-informed and intelligent men and women carry on today in their endeavor to make sure that the fires of this planet burn peaceably.”


I’m always taking a chance when I decide to read a biography of someone I admire. Once the person becomes human, sometime too human, it can color how you see their work. James K...more
I should have reviewed this right when I finished it so it would all still be fresh in my head, but here goes:

I have been a huge Cheever fan since I was a teenager and have always wished that he was the "venerable New England author" who lived on the street in Ipswich where I was born instead of Updike. (Updike can suck it, if you ask me. He wrote some decent short stories, but the Rabbit books are the most boring, misogynistic sack of poo that I have ever zzzzzzz....) I knew a bit about Cheever...more
This took me the entire summer--picking it up, putting it down-- to read. Mainly because my capacity for vicarious depression is not as large as it once was. I have too many things to say about this, and not enough time to say them. So I'll boil it down: it's absolutely amazing that such big-hearted fiction was written by a man who spent so much of his life feeling sad, guilty, and fraudulent.

But without those feelings would there have been such a lifeblood of pathos in the work? I'm pretty sur...more
Joy H.
Cheever: A Life (Audio CD) by Blake Bailey
Added 4/20/11.
GR description: "Blake Bailey's biography focuses on the gaping disparity between Cheever's proud Yankee social persona and his lifelong inner turmoil."


NOTE: Cheever won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Stories of John Cheever, a compilation of his short stories. Read a sample of these short stories here:

I am currently l...more
Hannah  Messler
Dangit, Blake Bailey. I am really loving Palace Walk, but you are like my goddamned idol at this point--I don't like biographies, barely care about Cheever, and am too BUSY to mess with this right now. And yet . . . sigh. What a wonderful jorb you do.

Man, this guy really kills me. Blake Bailey writes a biography like Richard Yates writes a novel. Given, the material is sweet as hell, and that helps, but I swear, if I were a thirteen-year old I would put a poster of Blake Bailey on my wall. StuPE...more
Moira Russell
Somewhat dryly and harshly written -- the author doesn't seem that much charmed by Cheever's prose or his personality, which are both luminous. But this is definitely the definitive biography; it makes Donaldson's fairly substantive earlier book look like a puff piece. It includes new, lengthy interviews with family members, careful chronological tracings of stories beginning and blooming (complete with unpublished working notes -- altho the whole book is rather sadly lacking in literary critica...more
K.M. Soehnlein
Things I didn’t know about John Cheever before reading this biography:

• He was raised in poverty, after his merchant-class father lost everything in the Depression.
• He was expelled from high school before graduating and never went to college.
• He published his first piece of writing as a teenager (!) in The New Republic (!). It was called “Expelled,” and it ripped apart the school that had kicked him out.
• He was short—5’5” as a full grown adult.
• After high school he lived in Boston with his o...more
Since the hardcover's too much of a brick to bring on a train commute, I decided to take a few months to read Cheever from home, wanting to feel as if I were checking in on a life from time to time. Having had unprecedented access to Cheever's colossal journals, Bailey gives Cheever's underrated, brilliant body of work the celebration it deserves (if you haven't checked out his stories, do so immediately), while more importantly sparing no detail about the man's tortured personal life: bisexuali...more
Bookmarks Magazine

Most critics felt that Blake Bailey's book was an admirable work of scholarship and approved of his task of encouraging people to read Cheever again. But they disagreed about the extent to which Cheever succeeds as a literary biography. A few reviewers thought that Bailey had done an incomparable job of integrating the details of the man's life with his work. Others, however, opined that the book's exhaustive detail gives readers almost no insight into Cheever the author. Most assessments were m

Mike Ingram
Pretty heartbreaking, really, though also funny and insightful and very, very thoroughly researched. One thing I really like about the book is how it dispels some of the romanticism of the "drunk, tormented writer" type. To live inside Cheever's head -- through his journals, in particular -- is to see how his drinking and depression often got in the way of his work, rather than serving as some kind of mystical inspiration. In the end, the portrait is a pretty loving one, but depressing too, as C...more
Joan Colby
This highly praised biography gets a mixed critique from me. Bailey does a good job of invigorating the spirit of Cheever, so one truly understands his complicated psyche. Yet, his writing as a whole is often awkward; e.g. rather than use the name of a individual stated in a prior sentence, he will say "the man" or "the woman" which tends to stop the reader in his tracks. Beyond awkward, it is confusing. This is just one example of Bailey's difficulty with usage. His descriptions of people somet...more
By today's standards, it seems as though John Cheever would not be a very popular writer. He was (for the most part) a brutally honest man without a college education who drank constantly, maintained a persona of an effeminate blue blood, was ashamed of his (then) 'uncommon' and insatiable sexual appetite, and had great difficulty producing actual novels, opting frequently for his now signature short works, which gave the world a quick glance into the strange emotional inner-workings of suburban...more
In this estimable and exhaustive account of the life and work of the late writer, John Cheever, the biographer, Blake Bailey, manages to do the seemingly impossible - he portrays his subject in the harsh light of brutal honesty without reducing either his humanity or his art. The long years of alcoholism and genteel penury as he refined his writing are faithfully recounted, as are his many complicated family relationships and his enduring association with the New Yorker.

The version of Cheever f...more
Jason Pettus
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

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...more
Nicholas Montemarano
I'd been looking forward to this biography for a while (Bailey's previous biography of Richard Yates is among my favorite books). I found Bailey's life of Cheever to be equally impressive (the amount of detail is almost overwhelming), but I didn't fall in love with Cheever, as he comes to life on the page, as much as I'd fallen in love with Yates. This has less to do with Bailey and much more to do with Cheever and Yates and my sympathetic inclinations. True, both men were alcoholic, troubled, s...more
A biography with the fine, inexorable action of Greek tragedy, with a central figure drawn with a sympathetic yet honest eye. Bailey has absorbed the depth of Cheever's art without becoming besotted by it, yet neither is he ignorant of its moment. As well, the literary biographer's balancing act between author and works is executed with a confident, intelligent panache.

It is on the subject of Cheever's sexual life that Bailey stumbles; a voyeuristic, almost tabloidish attention is paid to Cheeve...more
This terrific book goes immediately to my top shelf of literary biographies. John Cheever lived in endless turmoil with his contradictions—the erudite high school dropout; the closeted bisexual who despised gay men, guilt-ridden, manipulative and rampant in his pursuits; the snob most at ease with workers; a man who idealized husband-and-fatherhood, and an alcoholic compulsively unkind to his children and estranged from his wife. Given a lesser biographer all this could be merely lurid, but Bail...more
Ellen Young
This is a stupendous biography. I couldn't stop reading, and no, I didn't skim one bit. At times it read like a suspense novel. I've been a fond devotee of Cheever's stories for years and had read some of his published journals (which are almost as good reading as his stories), but I never knew much about him. Being bisexual and an alcoholic doesn't seem all that unusual, after all. His great gifts were his masterly storytelling and beautiful prose style.

Well, Bailey gave me a gift with this bo...more
M. Sarki
I was thinking I might revisit this book next summer here at my cabin as I do like the writing of Blake Bailey. There is no doubt this is a very good book and well-written. But my problem lies with John Cheever. I have never read his fiction and really do not have any desire to do so. I really do not even like the man from what I have learned of him thus far. So, for the sake of what time remains to me to read the books I must in order to better myself and fulfill me, I must abandon this work pe...more
This is an outstanding work of scholarship and a great literary biography. I love Cheever's short stories and truly admire his craft, but I had a very hard time reading this biography. He was just such a tortured, broken person and his struggles with alcoholism and bisexuality were difficult to read about. Not that I have a problem with alcoholics or bisexuals -- I just found it so profoundly sad, and such a waste, that he had to struggle so much with his identity. I had to force myself to keep...more
Gloria monaghan
After reading this excellent well written biography, which is filled with sympathy and admiration, I am going back to read all of Cheever. A conflicted guy who faced his fears in his journals. He destroyed the people who loved him and worshiped total strangers, found solace in the night after drinking a martini and then wonders why in the morning light. I can relate. The writer found Cheever's language. He was a man who could drink the Russians to the floor, but he was also capable of articulati...more
Cheevah! John Cheever’s biography reads like one of his short stories: Sex maniac, Cape Cod snob, alcoholic nudist, annoying extra on the set of “The Swimmer” (prompting Burt Lancaster to cuss him out!), mentally abusive parent, Time/Newsweek cover boy, this book never gets boring even after 600+ pages.

I enjoyed reading about working with his editors at The New Yorker, the negotiating in payment per short story (was he paid enough compared to his peers?). John Updike gives this bio the thumbs up...more
I really, really loved Blake Bailey's biography of Richard Yates, and The Stories of John Cheever is one of my favorite books of all time, so it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I would love this. And I did, but it was upsetting to learn exactly how monstrous Cheever was. The way he used and belittled the people closest to him, combined with his almost unbelievable narcissism, was appalling. Although this biography was beautifully written, I can't imagine recommending it to anyone but...more
Willa Grant
Good book about a bad man. John Cheever may have been a brilliant writer but he was odious as a person. I had heard that he was less than a nice person but he was really a scuz-butt. Bad enough he married women instead of admitting he was a homosexual, he treated his children less than kindly & he was a drunk. The worst part was, that he thought himself so much better than everyone. Bleh- I just wanted to wash after reading this book.
Colleen O'donnell
An excellent biography of the unforgettable life of John Cheever: a proud Yankee who flaunted his lineage while deploring the provincialism of his family circle. A struggling alcoholic and a self-loathing homosexual whose career and reputation was hijacked in part for two reasons. First because he originally published most of his work in "The New Yorker" magazine, he was typecast as a New York writer. What this meant that while he may be in the Library of America, he is for the most part not on...more
As soon as I finished this book, I wanted to start over at the beginning and read it all again. This is the best biography (of anyone) I have ever read. It is so well-written, and Cheever definitely makes for interesting subject matter. This man had one heck of a life, but what an amazing storyteller and author he was.
I have always loved John Cheever's writing and this fantastic biography is wonderful reading unto itself...I couldn't stop reading it ans got so immersed in it that, when finished, I immediately went to get Cheever's stories to reread and Falconer which I've never read.
I'd never read any Cheever when I picked up this book. So why was I interested in a biography of him? He seemed like an enigma to me in some way, and I'd always meant to read some of his stories. This bio was very well-reviewed, and I was interested, so I thought I'd give it a go. And I was completely drawn in -- both by the man himself and his very complicated life, and by the wonderful writing. Blake Bailey is now my favorite biographer and I will read any book he writes, especially biographie...more
Aug 08, 2010 Sull rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Sull by: Library
What a book & what a man! 700 pages & in some ways a really crazy fellow, a compulsive social climber whose single-minded, nearly fanatic pursuit of "being a writer" came first, before love, before family, before health in the end. A relentless chaser of his own dreams, which were interesting (magical) enough to enthrall my parents' generation of post-war 50's suburbanites, a new phenomena that he wrote for & to.

But so crazy. Secret facets of his own personality made sub-texts &...more
James Murphy
This is a very full biography of Cheever touching all the facets of his life. I like it that the breadth and depth of it seems to attempt to tell it all rather than casting some new and unusual hook to bring him to the surface. It's as complete and definitive as we'll get for now. But it's unstartling, too. There are a couple of reasons for that, I think. First is that by now Cheever's bisexuality is well known. The second is that the book is very sympathetic to Cheever himself. This may be dese...more
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Blake Bailey is the author of biographies of John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Charles Jackson, and he is at work on the authorized biography of Philip Roth. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; the winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Francis Parkman Prize; and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. H...more
More about Blake Bailey...
A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson Cheever: A Life, Part 1 Sixties

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