John Cheever was one of the best short story writers of the second half of 20th century, the quintessential New Yorker magazine writer and chronicler of America's post-war move to the suburbs.
Cheever's public persona was equally quintessential. Pictures often showed him in crew neck sweaters and tweedy jackets, bits of autumnal foliage in the background. He seemed the perfect representative of the privileged, comfortable class his work so often depicted.But a closer look at both the stories and the life reveal a different Cheever, a man tormented by loneliness, bewildered by a bisexuality he was reluctant to affirm but unable to deny, and battling the bottle while seeking some kind of transcendence.
Six years after his death in 1982, the outlines of that private life are taking shape and some of the holes left by his daughter Susan's candid memoir, "Home Before Dark," are beginning to be filled. Earlier this year saw the publication of Scott Donaldson's biography, and now Cheever's son Benjamin has edited a generous selection of his father's letters.
There are both rewards and disappointments in this book.
Cheever was mostly a note writer, and there is little of the subtlety of observation, the nuanced thought of his best fiction. There is little to suggest Cheever had any deeply felt opinions or well-thought out ideas on much of anything. Most of his observations on the work of other writers, for example, are superficial and sometimes simply petty and mean-spirited.
That's particularly true of what emerges as the very ambivalent friendship and rivalry with John Updike, the writer with whom he is most often linked. He can call Updike "brilliant" and minimize him as "grabby." It was, however, an ambivalence he recognized: "There is, I think, a conspicuous ego clash between us that makes a merry friendship unlikely," he said in a 1975 letter.
At the same time, Cheever was a storyteller, and his gift for anecdote is apparent throughout.
Benjamin appears to have been open minded in his selecting, including a number of letters to Hope Lang, a one-time lover the writer never got over, as well as letters to male lovers.
The younger Cheever also supplies a running commentary, sometimes using excerpts from his father's diaries and journals. Although sometimes cloying, the commentary is sometimes insightful and always useful, explaining contexts and references that might otherwise be lost.