Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey
Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch
A FEW WEEKS AGO, I sat in my office reading Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” and came upon a line that sent me reeling back into my past: “Was there ever someone so young?”
The question struck me strangely, deeply. I turned in my chair, and as I looked up at the wall of books, lost in this question of evolution and maturity, my eyes locked onto the yellow spine of the Journals of John Cheever.
When I took the book from the shelf, it immediately fell open to this dog-eared passage:
Hallow’s Eve . Some set piece about the community giving a primordial shudder, scattering the mercies of piety, charity, and mental health and exposing, briefly, the realities of evil and the hosts of the vengeful and unquiet dead. I see how frail the pumpkin lanterns are that we light on our doorsteps to protect our houses from the powers of darkness. I see the little boy, dressed as the devil, rattling a can and asking pennies for unicef. How thin the voice of reason sounds tonight! Does my mother fly through the air? My father, my fishing companions? Have mercy upon us; grant us thy peace! Although there seemed to be no connection, it was always at this season that, in the less well-heeled neighborhoods of the village, “For Sale” signs would appear, as abundant as chrysanthemums. Most of them seemed to have been printed by children, and they were stuck into car windshields, nailed to trees, and attached to the bows of cabin cruisers and other boats, resting on trailers in the side yard. Everything seemed for sale—pianos, vacant lots, Rototillers, and chainsaws, as if the coming of winter provoked some psychic upheaval involving the fear of loss. But as the last of the leaves fell, glittering like money, the “For Sale” signs vanished with them. Had everyone got a raise, a mortgage, a loan, or an infusion of hopefulness? It happened every year.
The entry is a summary of Cheever’s chief sympathies: his concern that ritual is frail and shallow though it simultaneously pulls upon our deepest selves; his keen eye for the subtle signals of economic decline or the ascension to privilege; the way the bucolic atmosphere of the suburbs is disturbed by the rattling of pennies in a can or the tacking of a “For Sale” sign to a tree. And yet, in the end, as in so many of his short stories, he leavens the mood with an ecclesiastical awareness that to everything there is a season. These are sympathies I share.
Cheever’s painfully frank revelations about the writing life were a comfort, almost a relief, when I was writing my first stories outside of a classroom, afraid that I was in over my head. Up to that point, I had devotedly imitated the grotesqueries of Flannery O’Connor. I was a Midwestern Catholic, but I was working squarely in the school of southern degeneracy, where insight and epiphanies are hastened by large and startling figures of violence.
O’Connor is a patroness for many Catholic writers, unapologetically devout, but with a nuanced aesthetic sense for what constitutes good art, a razor-sharp wit, and a tragic sense of humor. She thought of herself as a “hillbilly Thomist,” a Catholic of the twelfth century, not the twentieth. When she went to Yaddo, she brought Robert Lowell to mass. Cheever, on the other hand, was a dangerous, unstable mentor: alcoholic, uppity, sentimental, philandering. When he went to Yaddo, he was found drunk and naked in the hallway of the mansion.
It would seem I couldn’t have chosen two less compatible guides. But for a young writer the disconnect between the moral thrust of Cheever’s fiction and his own self-destructive conduct made him a less imposing master than the stern, damning O’Connor, whose letters and essays on the craft of writing are withering and dogmatic. Nevertheless, these two were the Tigris and Euphrates circumscribing the fertile crescent of my literary ambitions.
The above estimation of Cheever as a deeply troubled wannabe-Brahmin (and the psychoanalytic glosses of his sexuality and drinking habits) are so widely accepted that they have, unfortunately, blunted the poignancy of his work. Critics smug in their knowledge that the suburbs are evil have been unable to resist dismissing Cheever as a Johnny-one-note—Johnny “The Swimmer,” Johnny “Suburbia,” the John Cheever of Seinfeld fame—rather than the Ovid of Ossining, the creator of the suburban ur-text.
But an unbiased reading of Cheever reveals a writer sensitive to the drama of domestic life in all its poetry and banality. This is his legacy; without him there would, arguably, be no Raymond Carver or Rick Moody, no American Beauty. The key to Cheever’s power is his decorous prose, which lends gravity and scope to his material: he thought that if something was worth writing about, it was worth writing about with the kind of reverence afforded to legend. One of his most famous stories, “Goodbye, My Brother,” begins:
We are a family that has always been very close in spirit. Our father drowned in a sailing accident when we were young, and our mother has always stressed the fact that our familial relationships have a kind of permanence that we will never meet with again.
There is something reassuring in the narrator’s voice—melancholic and yet hopeful in its diction. When he says his family has “always been close in spirit” we know that he wishes it were true, even if it isn’t.
Cheever wrote in the preface to the Stories of John Cheever: “I like to think that decorum is a mode of speech, as profound and connotative as any other, differing not in content but in syntax and imagery.” O’Connor’s grotesqueries train the eye on the human tendency toward duplicity and self-deception in a language that is stark and incisive. Cheever, on the contrary, depicts his protagonists as pitiable products of their culture in a lyrical and decorous style. His imagery and syntax have a sense of rarity, of a passing heady feeling that comes only once in a great while, when all the right components collide: the smell of wood-smoke and the crowd-sounds of a football game; the tender look a wife has for her husband in the morning upon waking.
Of late, Cheever’s work has been of interest mostly to male grad students dissertating on representations of the suburbs in literature and voyeurs who eroticize dissolution. Approaching the new Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey (Knopf, 2009), a biography requested and authorized by Cheever’s family, I hoped for a little redemption of the life’s work of my unpopular hero, a look at his fiction with fresh eyes, a new interpretation of the Cheever myth.
Bailey’s book is no hagiography; this seven-hundred-plus-pager is a book of days, each of which seems to last a year. Bailey offers an excruciatingly thorough look at Cheever’s sexuality, bringing us painfully close to his life-long struggle for emotional and sexual connection, and to become known as a novelist rather than just a writer of New Yorker fiction. Cheever is an astonishing feat of research, indexing and tracking down leads, but it lacks shape and atmosphere. At times, Bailey seems to want to capture Cheever’s habits and style—using the French when the English will do, being circumspect when delivering the damning truth—but it’s unclear whether he writes in a spirit of irony or earnest devotion. The final effect is, as Updike wrote of the book before he passed, a “heavy, dispiriting read.” I would go one better and call it stunningly depressing.
Similarly, in Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (Little, Brown, 2009), out the same month as Cheever, Brad Gooch paints the usual flattering yet enigmatic picture of O’Connor: a raiser of peafowl from a young age—she first captured national attention for teaching one to walk backwards—she quietly ascended to the national literary scene via the now-famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop on the merit of her violent portrayals of life in the antebellum, Christ-haunted South. She lived an ascetic yet vital life, detailed in an impressive body of letters and the occasional speech given at a college or university—some of which are now seen as prophetic utterances—until lupus cut short her career when she was thirty-nine. Like Bailey, Gooch leads us year by year through his subject’s life, while revealing the real-life sources of many characters, set pieces, and plots. Gooch is to be commended for portraying O’Connor’s religious convictions in an even-handed way, or, at the very least, not portraying her faith—as some scholars do—as morbid and self-deluding.
Though I had been elated by the coincidence of these two definitive biographies emerging simultaneously—would this somehow reconcile the warring Cheever-O’Connor influence on my literary formation?—the initial experience of reading them was disappointing. It wasn’t so much that I knew all they had to say, though both seem only to support, in thorough detail, the prevailing perceptions of their subjects. Despite their thoroughness—and these books are certainly a boon to scholars of both authors—I found them each to have considerable blind spots. The most glaring is that neither Bailey nor Gooch considers religion as a kind of knowledge, something that doesn’t just shape one’s perception of the world, but informs what one believes is possible: imagination. Belief is instead regarded as just another aspect of identity, expressive of childhood upbringing, region, and choice rather than knowledge. That neglect might seem more troubling in a work dedicated to O’Connor, who was devout. But in reflecting on my admiration for Cheever, I became aware of the ways in which his art and advice had also been a large part of not only my literary, but my catechetical formation. As much as O’Connor, if not more, it was the music of his prose, the logic of his imagination, the parade of grotesques, the implied beliefs and lived experiences—psychic and physical—that shaped my sympathies and sensibility, my understanding of how art and religion converge.
Cheever writes: “Calvin played no part at all in my religious education, but his presence seemed to abide in the barns of my childhood and to have left me with some undue bitterness.” Bailey points out that Cheever saw himself as the inheritor of a religious sense, a moral dimension in his imagination, directly from his ancestor Ezekiel Cheever, headmaster of the Boston Latin School from 1671 to 1708 and friend of Cotton Mather, who had admired his “untiring abjuration of the Devil.” Judge Sewall rhapsodized, “The welfare of the commonwealth was always upon the conscience of Ezekiel Cheever, and he abominated periwigs.” Shortly before his death in 1983, Cheever wrote that Malcolm Cowley, his first editor, had taught him to see literature as “a commonwealth and that its welfare is much upon our conscience. Nothing in our civilization, as I see it, is more important. The abomination of periwigs is in the nature of literature, which as a pursuit is frequently heretical.”
The spooky “presence” of Calvin in the barns of Cheever’s childhood brings to mind the hayloft tryst between the Bible-selling confidence man Manley Pointer and the philosophy PhD Joy/Hulga in O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” “I’ve been believing in nothing my whole life,” Manley defiantly says, making off with Hulga’s wooden leg. But it also brings to mind O’Connor’s more sinister image of Jesus as a wooly-haired Tarzan-like presence perched in the trees of Hazel Motes’s imagination—an image embodying O’Connor’s view of the South as “Christ-haunted.”
But Cheever was not so much Christ-haunted as dogged by an inability to achieve peace and equanimity.
On Palm Sunday of 1967 he wrote in his journal:
What am I doing here on my knees, shaking with alcohol and the cold? I do not pray, but I hope that my children will know much happiness. I believe that there was a Christ, that he spoke the beatitudes, cured the sick, and died on the cross, and it seems marvelous to me that men should, for two thousand years, have repeated this story as a means of expressing their deepest feelings and intuitions about life. My only noticeable experience is a pleasant sense of humility.
Bailey quotes a friend of Cheever’s: “[John] was such a nice person…a basically decent person, with something that kept him from being completely decent.”
Instead of being haunted by a tree-swinging Christ, he chased an elusive and perhaps illusory goal of wholeness and reconciliation through fiction.
In Art and Scholasticism, Maritain reflects on this very chase, saying that the journey toward wisdom is frustrating and harrowing for the artist because wisdom, if it is attained, is a result of “making” and “drudgery.” The making of art results in many more failures than successes. Spurred by those occasional brushes with wisdom, the artist “must wear himself out among bodies and live with the spirits.” This is a truly “strange and saddening” condition, for “[e]ven if the artist were to encompass in his work all the light of heaven and all the grace of the first garden, he would not have perfect joy, because he is following wisdom’s footsteps and running by the scent of its perfumes, but does not possess it.”
This passage might have appeared in Bailey’s account of Cheever’s life. The rhetoric could have been directly lifted out of many a Cheever story—the evocation of light and joy and the unabashed and decorous personification of wisdom as an unattainable woman, like Diana, the chaste moon goddess.
A realization such as Maritain’s has led many an artist to self-aggrandizing sentimentality and melancholy. O’Connor, despite the great temptation to despair of her poor health, was wary of sentimentality:
We lost our innocence in the fall, and our return to it is through the redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.
Her stories and novels ruthlessly avoid sentimentality, as it is precisely the possibility of redemption that each of her characters stands before, even the ones—especially the ones—who self-identify as Christians. The characters who survive the slings and arrows of O’Connor’s fiction are left scorched by the experience. Julian, the self-righteous, socially progressive, race-conscious son of a bigoted woman in “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” rails against the narrow-mindedness of the South only to be brought to heel by his mother’s stroke and the suffocating “tide of darkness [that] seemed to sweep him back to her.”
Cheever’s stories rarely deal with sophomoric social progressives like Julian—the barrel of fish he shot into was full of money-strapped, melancholic men past their prime, having somehow failed in their masculine duties, and now, sometimes quite literally, staring into the void.
So begins one of Cheever’s best stories, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill”:
My name is Johnny Hake. I’m thirty-six years old, stand five feet eleven in my socks, weigh one hundred and forty-two pounds stripped, and am, so to speak, naked at the moment and talking into the dark.
Or “The Death of Justina”:
So help me God it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and what I expect as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one’s purest memories and ambitions; and I can barely recall the old house where I was raised, where in midwinter Parma violets bloomed in a cold frame near the kitchen door, and down the long corridor, past the seven views of Rome—up two steps and down three—one entered the library where all the books were in order the lamps were bright, where there was a fire and a dozen bottles of good bourbon locked in a cabinet with a veneer like a tortoise shell whose silver key my father wore on his watch chain. Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing.
This meta-fictional move, which became more pronounced in Cheever’s later work, allowed him to deepen his claim that transcendence is possible through loving attention to the sensual world and reflective straining after its mysterious source. In other words, the making of fiction is one of the highest and holiest human acts of spirituality.
To read Cheever in light of O’Connor, and vice versa, is to come to terms with two competing views of the sacramental potential of literature—the “visible sign[s] of an invisible reality,” as Augustine wrote. The visible signs in Cheever tend toward the transcendental experience of the natural, the elemental, the atmospheric; whereas O’Connor’s signs tend toward and are rooted in the bodily—the parade of grotesques inflicting themselves on the poor in spirit—and are ultimately tied to the Corpus Christi.
In “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” a young girl has a spiritual awakening after she encounters a hermaphrodite at a freak show who exclaims, “God made me this way….” In Cheever’s “The Country Husband,” the protagonist, Francis Weed, realizes that the servant offering him coffee at a dinner party is a young French woman whom he saw, as a soldier in France after the liberation, publicly stripped and whipped for being the mistress of an SS officer. The psychological impact of this chance encounter does not cause him to second-guess his desire to take his teenage babysitter as a mistress; in fact, it heightens his desire: “[I]t had opened his memory and senses, and left them dilated.” It is an erotic moment, one that reinforces the righteousness of his plan to become involved with the sitter. This is both the genius and concerning aspect of Cheever’s work. He is able to parse the tangled, solipsistic logic that leads to such a sin in such a dramatically convincing way that the action takes on a sense of not just moral ambiguity, but rightness.
One is tempted to imagine what might have happened had Cheever known of Maritain’s views. O’Connor was deeply influenced (and relieved) by Maritain’s belief that “Art in no way tends to the artist’s being good in his own action as a man…” and that the “pure artist…is something entirely amoral.” However, Maritain’s view proves to be much more demanding than it appears at first blush. He writes: “But the artist will need a certain heroism in order to keep himself always on the straight path of Doing, and in order to not sacrifice his immortal substance to the devouring idol he has in his soul. In truth, such conflicts can be abolished only if a profound humility renders the artist…unconscious of his art….”
The difference between the moral vision of these two authors is nowhere more evident than in the endings of these two stories. “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” ends with the young girl looking out at the sunset: “The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood….” “The Country Husband” ends with Weed standing in his backyard listening to the pleasantly familiar sounds of his neighborhood and achieving a sense of peace, a return to normal: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.”
O’Connor wrote in her review of William Lynch’s 1960 book on the religious imagination, Christ and Apollo:
The opposition here is between Christ, who stands for reality in all its definiteness, and Apollo, who stands for the indefinite, the romantic, the endless. It is again the opposition between the Hebraic imagination, always concrete, and the agnostic imagination, which is dream-like.
O’Connor, who worked firmly within an Hebraic imagination, deals her characters vicious, tragic blows that bring them face-to-face with an exacting “maker” rather than a romantic “creator.” By contrast, Cheever, whose faith was in the more transcendental spirit of creativity, might be seen as working within a dream-like, Apollonian romanticism. “Without literature,” he wrote, “we would have no knowledge of the meaning of love. Literature is the only history we possess of this overwhelming sentiment.”
Cheever’s turn toward the dream of fiction as a stay against chaos is reflected in his journals, where we are reminded over and over how much his life and work were pervaded by a struggle between the real and the definite on one side and the endless, romantic pining for success and sensual connection on the other. His journals assert that he and his protagonists are often one and the same: men who struggle to be dutiful husbands and fathers amid alcoholism, adultery, and professional failure.
In fact, Cheever’s journals inspire us to return to his fiction with new eyes, with a new, more nuanced understanding of inherent virtues of his imagination and his vision—something the best biographies can also do (see Alan Jacobs’s The Narnian).
Gooch’s life of O’Connor ably conjures her dark humor and faith, and manages to provide surprising insight into and illumination of aspects of her personal life that were previously unexplored or misunderstood, thus presenting us with a more human and fallible O’Connor. But Bailey’s Cheever, despite the unquestionably heroic scope of the research, neglects and perhaps misunderstands Cheever’s contribution to American letters—we lose touch with Cheever the artist even as our knowledge of his life increases. I fear that the average reader may close the book on this biography and then on Cheever, too.
—Reviewed by David Griffith