James Murphy's Reviews > Cheever

Cheever by Blake Bailey
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's review
Jan 02, 11

Read in January, 2011

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 deservedly so, but Bailey deftly covers such topics as his alcoholism and his sometime indifference to his children so that they appear to have not affected or inconvenienced anyone, as they almost certainly must have. Perhaps the approach is correct. Arguably the best biography is one in which the author isn't decidedly critical of his subject. But then the subject's warts appear to have been caused by someone or something else. His relations with The New Yorker Magazine often disappointed Cheever, but Bailey--again, maybe rightly so--assigns blame to the orneriness of the magazine's editorial staff and none (or little) to Cheever himself. A better example is his marriage. Bailey's account of John's marriage to Mary surprised me. Reading Susan Cheever's book about her father, Home Before Dark, I'd gotten the impression Cheever mistreated Mary, but Bailey lays by far most of the blame for the dysfunction on her. Because the marriage was so unhappy for so long without either of them wishing to divorce, or at least not the long-suffering Cheever, I wonder if we're given the whole picture of the relationship. I would think that an alcoholic husband who lusted after other men and who openly boasted of affairs with other women--the actress Hope Lange, for instance--might at least occasionally be hard to live with. Bailey, however, doesn't pin any of the marriage's trouble on Cheever. In fact, he's often a little unkind to some of those around Cheever. Mary Cheever is only one target. The book suggests William Maxwell treated Cheever shoddily in behalf of The New Yorker. I thought some tensions with John Updike were blamed on Updike. As Bailey writes Hope Lange at the end of their relationship she wasn't even nice, too tired of him for simple politeness, though it's not related what stresses exhausted their affair. I've spent time on these items becuse they're important to me. But they don't detract from the portrait presented or the critiques of his work. For anyone interested in Cheever as man and writer, this is the book. Cheever lives here in his warmth, kindness and generosity to others. And his extraordinary talent. Reaching the end of a long biography like this, one signpost of success is if the reader is sad at the passing of a subject brought vividly to life. I was saddened because Bailey brought Cheever to me so completely.

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