Cheever: A Life

Blake Bailey

Published by Knopf, 2009
ISBN 10: 1400043948 / ISBN 13: 9781400043941
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Synopsis: From the acclaimed author of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates comes the unforgettable life of John Cheever (1912–1982), a man who spent much of his career impersonating a perfect suburban gentleman, the better to become one of the foremost chroniclers of postwar America. “I was born into no true class,” Cheever mused in his journal, “and it was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously.” Written with unprecedented access to essential sources—including Cheever’s massive journal, only a fraction of which has ever been published—Blake Bailey’s biography reveals the troubled but strangely lovable man behind the disguises, an artist who delighted in the everyday radiance of the world while yearning, above all, “to be illustrious.”

Cheever’s was a soul in conflict: he was a proud Yankee who flaunted his lineage while deploring the provincialism of his Quincy, Massachusetts, family circle; a high-school dropout who published his first story at eighteen; a pioneer of suburban realist fiction who continually pushed the boundaries of realism; a dire alcoholic who recovered to write the great novel Falconer; a secret bisexual who struggled with his longings and his fierce homophobia in a revolving door of self-loathing and hedonism. We see a man who concealed his anxieties behind the mask of a genial Westchester squire—a paterfamilias in Brooks Brothers clothes whose world was peopled by legendary writers and beautiful women (Malcolm Cowley, Saul Bellow, William Maxwell, Hope Lange, and John Updike, among them); whose groundbreaking work landed him on the covers of Time and Newsweek; a man whose demons and desperation were never quite vanquished by the joy he found in his work.

Blake Bailey has written a luminous biography, a revelation of a writer of timeless fiction and of the man behind the page.

Review: Amazon Best of the Month, March 2009: In Blake Bailey's monumental, masterful, and, at nearly 800 pages, mammoth biography, Cheever: A Life, the author of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates turns his attention to the "the Chekhov of the suburbs" and his storied, celebrated, and deeply tortured life. Written with compassion and the full cooperation of Cheever's widow, Mary, and their three children, Cheever is rich with detail and chronicles the mournful arc of a lifetime struggling with a core duplicity that ached throughout his writing life--despite a 41-year marriage, Cheever was a closeted bisexual who simmered with self-loathing. Bailey covers the author's childhood, his time in the army, his life as a writer and his literary rivals (Salinger, in particular, seemed to irritate him), his alcoholism (he would struggle against taking that first "scoop" of gin from the pantry every morning while he was writing), and his struggle to play the role of suburban family man. The book is peppered with literary cameos: Updike, Bellow, and Roth are there, along with his Iowa Writers' Workshop students T.C. Boyle, Ron Hansen, and Allan Gurganus. (While at Iowa Cheever made it a weekly ritual to watch Monday Night Football and eat homemade pasta with fellow instructor John Irving.) Bailey also edited two Library of America editions of Cheever's stories and novels published to coincide with his biography. This literary hat trick will no doubt spark a well-deserved Cheever renaissance honoring his legacy as an American master. --Brad Thomas Parsons

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Title: Cheever: A Life
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: 2009
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Used: Good

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