One of the unforeseen pleasures of having a blog is to be able to promote a friend's work, especially when that work is so fine.  Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey is published today.  For those readers who love literary biography, this will be an unalloyed pleasure.  Not that Blake will need additional promotion–his book is reviewed on page one of Sunday's NYTimes Book Review, Updike reviewed it (respectfully if crankily) in The New Yorker, all the major players are commenting.  But more, there's something about Cheever, and his fabulistic take on suburbia that plays to our enduring fascination with and loathing of life in American suburbs. I remember in high school when his big red book of stories was everywhere in my Shaker Heightsian suburbia, a book containing one of the great prologues of all time, an ode to an older Manhattan, and whose first short story, "Goodbye, My Brother," is perhaps my favorite short story ever.  Cheever could effortlessly throw in high flown phrasing, "where full fathom five our father lies," and get away with it, and  then fell you with the simply stated: "what can you do with a man like that?"

Blake and I met in Manhattan in our desultory post-collegiate youth, both of us intent on becoming novelists, and drinking far more successfully than we wrote.  I managed to publish a few things in the NYTimes and he, well, he kept writing.  I used to joke that he would become a literary biographer, which, to aspiring Hemingways, was like an actor dreaming to be Laurence Olivier and winding up Wayne Rogers as Trapper John. Blake's first major book was a stellar bio of Richard Yates, a "landmark event," said the NYTimes, a review written by Janet Maslin, the wife of Cheever's son (which, long story short, resulted in Ben Cheever's asking if Bailey would consider aBlake Blog_2
 biography of his father).  Now he has written the definitive bio of the iconic chronicler of post-war American suburbia.  Cheever lived a harrowing inner life, was a terrible alcoholic, the horniest man alive, according to a famous actress, a man who could be monstrously exploitative of young male students, but he was also a touching, sad human being.  Blake gets it all exactly right.  Again, if you like literary bio, there's none better.  Except for maybe Blake's Yates.  Highly recommended. It may well inspire you to read or reread Cheever himself, now republished in two fine Library of America volumes, edited by Blake, The Complete Novels and The Collected Stories


14 Wonderful responses to “Literary Interlude: Cheever”

  • Lamar

    I love good biographies, in a very selfish way. I tend to overuse them for inspiration (assuming for instance, that if some idol of mine indeed had so many flaws, then I might not do so badly after all!). For all the humanizing, most of them have been about folks with pretty spotless moral records.

    It’s probably high time to try one with a subject who is a bit more complex. This sounds interesting.

  • Charlotte

    When I was in graduate school at Utah, I worked in the local independent bookstore. Mark Strand came in one day, he was thinking about a course on the “short story of heartbreak.” Long story short, he wound up asking for the Big Red Cheever, and reading “A Reunion” to a couple of us. Strand has a great voice, and the story is a perfect, perfect gem. Two and a half pages — it couldn’t be any longer, nor shorter. In two and a half pages a boy realizes who his father actually is, and it’s not pretty.
    I’m so thrilled to see Cheever’s star rising again. Although he’s hard to teach out west — my students at UC Davis were bewildered. Cheever’s suburbs might as well have been the moon for all they could comprehend the social pressures described in those stories.

  • Dick Black

    Sure Wayne Rogers got slapped with the Trapper John role on M*A*S*H*.

    He also parlayed his earnings into an enviable fortune that only a few actors in the world ever acheieve.

  • Sean K

    Better hope Wayne Rogers does not read this and come looking for you…;)

    Actually, what about a blog entry about the cooking of M*A*S*H?

    In one episode, Radar wanted to throw away his lamb chop because it was “all fat” but Major Burns would not let him. Could that fatty lamb chop have been transformed into a bewitchingly complex braise with the thoughtful addition of some liquor from Hawkeye’ still and the kimchee Major Burns once found? Lamb chop a la Swamp, anyone? Or barbecue sauce prepared with the Grape Nehi Radar loved?

  • Tags

    When I first saw the photo of the book’s cover I thought it was Thomas Keller, but then I saw the name “Cheever” across the front.

    If it were Keller, it would’ve said “Over a Cheever.”

  • Natalie Sztern

    i’m wating for a biography of Leonard Cohen to be written…it’s nice to see you are not one dimensional…biographies enrapture me; including, o0ddly, On The Line, as it is like the biography of Le Bernadin which is written with great mental imagery, unique and quite enjoyable.

  • Donna Martin

    I just heard Blake Bailey’s interview on NPR today and if his biography of Cheever is even half as entertaining as his conversation with Diane Rehm, it’s worth reading! He won me over.

  • Dustin

    Sounds like a great read, Cheever is pretty much responsible for me being a Literature major.

  • Tom Janes

    That “big red book of stories” is still the finest collection of short stories one could ever hope to read. “Goodbye My Brother” is also one of my favorites-thanks for the literary heads up.

  • ntsc

    Well I’ve the LoA Cheever volumes in my library and that NYT review will cause me to dig them out. For those that are not familiar with Library of America they are books of collections of American authors that make a serious attempt to be complete, across multiple volumes, definitive and archival. They are not expensive, about six new volumes are published yearly and they make a very serious attempt to keep the volumes in print. Most are slip cased, a few, including a volume of food writing, the title of which escapes me, are not. Published authors range from B. Franklin to Cheever, Philip K. Dick and one of the few living ones, Roth.

    MR, can you point to your writings for the NYT? I’m interested.

    Re MASH cooking, there is a MASH cookbook, ‘Secrets of the MASH Mess’ or similar by Pvt. Igor, which includes both Rivers of Liver and Oceans of Fish. My wife makes about as much use of it as the instructional DVD I got for her, Cooking with Porn Stars.

  • Lisa

    I always liked Cheever’s short story, “The Swimmer”. I saw this bio was being released and wondered if it would be good – thanks for the post and also for recommending the Yates bio, which I haven’t read.

  • Edward

    I read the Cheever bio as soon as it came out and was delighted to read Ruhlman’s comments. It is a harrowing but still joyful read. The big red Cheever book was ubiquitous when I was in school, “Goodbye, My Brother” has probably the most beautiful ending lines since The Great Gatsby, and I have been rereading favorite Cheever stories since I finished the bio. The only drawback to reading the bio is that I kept wanting to put the book down and go read the Cheever stories that Bailey documents so beautifully.