Sunday, May 27, 2012

Happy Birthday to John Cheever (and Me)

On the very day I was struggling to swim out of my mother's birth canal (May 27, 1963), John Cheever was having some serious doubts about his career.  In fact, as I emerged--red, wet, clotted, gasping, squalling--into the world, John Cheever was thinking about leaving it.  Even as he blew out the candles on his own birthday cake on that day, he was an unhappy man.

The "Chekhov of the suburbs" had been wrestling with his work-in-progress, The Wapshot Scandal, a follow-up to his previous novel, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957).  His biographer Blake Bailey tells us:
It wasn't falling into place, and was far too gloomy for a writer whose work had been celebrated for its "wonder" and "brightness," a writer who was trying, once again, to hear the dragon's tail swishing among the leaves....By the end of March, he was able to report that the end and the beginning seemed all right: "But the middle, aiie, aiie.  The middle is wreckage."  He'd taken to sleeping (he said) with the manuscript between his legs; he'd made bargains with the devil.  Finally, as another spring came to an end, he didn't finish so much as arrive at a point where he couldn't think of anything else to write or revise.

So, the novel was finished.  What now?  Cheever later wrote:
When The Wapshot Scandal was completed my first instinct was to commit suicide.  I thought I might cure my melancholy if I destroyed the novel and I said as much to my wife.  She said that it was, after all, my novel and I could do as I pleased but how could she explain to the children what it was that I had been doing for the last four years.  Thus my concern for appearances accounted for the publication of the novel.

Soon after the final draft of Scandal was completed, Cheever sent the manuscript to William Maxwell, his friend and editor at The New Yorker, accompanied by what Bailey calls a "sheepish" cover letter: "A great many people felt that the [Wapshot] Chronicle was not a novel, and the same thing is bound to be said about this, perhaps more strongly. I do hope you'll like it, but if you shouldn't I will understand."

Maxwell didn't immediately respond and Cheever worried that the novel had "embarrassed him into speechlessness."  Maxwell's silence ate away at the novelist.  He couldn't sleep; he chain-smoked in the bathroom; he was overwhelmed by depression.

And then, on the very day I was born--this day, in 1963--Cheever picked up the phone and called Maxwell.  Bailey notes the occasion in his biography:
Finally, on his fifty-first birthday, Cheever took a matinal slug of whiskey and gave Maxwell a call: "He seems plainly unenthusiastic about the book if not gravely troubled by its failure. This is the devastation of my most intimate aspirations and dreams."

I hear ya, John.  I, too, have known the fragility of ego and spirit while waiting to hear back on the status of a manuscript.  In these days of instant communication, it's even more agonizing when more than a day has passed and you don't get a response to your email.  My mind so easily pole-vaults that gap of silence and I start to doubt every word I ever poured into my fiction.  I don't smoke (anymore), but if I did, I could easily see myself in Cheever mode: pacing and puffing at midnight, pausing like a madman to click Refresh on my inbox--sad, unfulfilling behavior.

So, I share his melancholia (what writer, at heart, doesn't?) and now that I've learned we share a birthday (this just became apparent to me last week--how had I gone all these years without knowing?), I feel a closer bond with him.  Even if it's just the ridiculously trivial fraternity of a calendar date, he is now even more special to me.  I want to know more about him and plan to swan dive into his works.

Cheever's reputation is a little dimmer today than it was 20 years ago at his death.  But it should not be that way.  Cheever, along with John Updike and Richard Yates, was brilliant at capturing the darker side of mid-century American life.  We should read him to learn about ourselves, our parents, our country.  I like how James Wolcott begins his review of Bailey's biography in Vanity Fair:
If a tinge of melancholy haunts the cocktail hour, if a croquet mallet left derelict on the lawn evokes a broken merriment, if the bar car of a commuter train gives off a stale whiff of failed promise and bitter alimony, pause and pay homage to John Cheever. Light a bug candle on the patio in his honor. For Cheever—novelist, master of the short story, prolific diarist—is the patron saint of Eastern Seaboard pathos and redemption, the Edward Hopper of suburban ennui, preserving minor epiphanies in amber.

In truth, my familiarity with Cheever is mostly limited to the billboard-size labels which have been slapped on him over the years: Drinker. Ruggedly masculine swimmer of icy waters.  Self-loathing, closeted homosexual.  I have read "The Swimmer," of course, and maybe a handful of other short stories.  But that's it--I possess a severely-shortchanged Cheever education.

But now that I know we're birthday soulmates, all that is about to change.  I'm adding The Wapshot Chronicle to the To-Be-Read pile, along with the The Stories of John Cheever, The Journals of John Cheever and Bailey's biography.

Cheever would have been 100 years old today, had he lived past his 70th year.  I propose we all raise a glass in his honor.  Whether it's filled with whiskey or milk is up to you.


  1. Hi David,

    Enjoying your blog.

    Happy birthday man!

    Might I suggest adding Cheever's novel Falconer to your list? I'd like to hear your thoughts on that one. I think it excels in many areas (particularly Cheever's ability to add depth and color to all the characters existing on the periphery), but it may lack in its ending. Anyways, Cheever is the man.



  2. Let's drink a toast to you both David! Have a wonderful day and of course, the upcoming year with the release of Fobbit is sure to bring much joy! Good luck with adding MORE to your reading pile...


  3. Jack,
    I will certainly add "Falconer" to the pile o' Cheevers on my desk. Thanks for the tip. Love your blog, BTW. Great sense of humor!

    Last time I tried to drink a toast, I started choking on the crumbs. Apparently, I have the meaning of the word wrong. But since you insist, I'll try again. Putting another slice in the toaster now....