For a few years now I’ve been quick to name Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life as one of my ten or so favorite books even though, prior to these last couple weeks of 2020, I’d only read it once before, in my junior year of college, and one of the things that cemented its emotional bigness in my memory at the time is the fact that it was the first book to’ve ever made me cry—which, looking back, mighta been cuz I was tipsy or hungry or stressed out from finals while reading those final chapters; coulda been anything; and so while going through the book again this month at 29 I was wondering if I was remembering it as being something more magisterial than it really is.
So for roughly the first hundred pages of the re-read I had my guard up.
Also: the week before starting Cheever I was pleased with myself for having read Bailey’s first book, a chunky biography of the writer Richard Yates called A Tragic Honesty, in just seven days flat, and I was wondering if I might be able to do the same here.
Turns out no. This one took me fourteen days exactly. But, on the bright side, I found that it’s as good as I remember. Probably better.
And, in reading it directly on the heels of A Tragic Honesty, I realize there are dimensions to it I couldn’t have guessed at in the first reading.
The ending to Cheever has the same emotional power that I remember from ten years ago and I think it’s also got a leg up on the Yates biography that precedes it because, while both books end their main text with the hero dying on the very last page, Bailey provides an epilogue for Cheever that lets us waft back down to earth like a feather from a window. I read the Yates biography on my Kindle and so, while it was clear that the book was taking me into the last year of his life, I was kinda surprised to turn a page and suddenly realize it had ended with the author dropping dead in literally the last line. I felt a bitta whiplash about that ending, but attributed it to the fact that I was reading it on a Kindle and didn’t realize the page in my hand was the last one. Now, in retrospect, I realize it’s probably intended to hit the reader like a fender bender.
That the main character of both biographies should die on the last page suggests a certain narrative sensibility (the whole book is very lean and no-bullshit about getting to the facts, so it makes sense that a narrator who’s been so to-the-point for 600 pages would say, “OK, he’s dead, we’re done”).
But anyway: the book’s got its own voice, its own sensibility: these things suggest a narrator, right?
And, conceivably, that narrator is the same person.
And that narrator is what I’d like to focus on because while I found that the book still punched me in the chest, I didn’t cry this time, and what I think made the second reading less emotional (though probably more exalted) than the first is that I was noticing and thinking about the presence of a whole new character: the biographer himself.
I wrote a piece here a couple weeks ago about Bailey’s first book and spoke there about how Bailey himself is definitely present in the text, popping up in the footnotes to pose a question or point out an inconsistency or draw a connection between some element of the subject’s life and work. The most interesting footnotes, I think, are those where he speaks in the first person to address some aspect of his research.
But the footnotes also communicate a voice, and within a voice there’s a sensibility, and the sensibility I found underscoring the Yates biography was that of a dogged kind of Woodward & Bernstein pursuit of facts, of a story—not unlike Jerry Thompson, the reporter in Citizen Kane: He’s going here and there to interview people from Kane’s past, hoping to learn the meaning of the man’s final word, “Rosebud,” and almost by happenstance, along the way, unearths the life story of this mythic American tycoon.
While that reporter in Kane is trying to learn the meaning of “Rosebud”, the biographer in A Tragic Honesty is trying to understand how a writer of Yates’s talents never achieved immortality.
Both Citizen Kane and Tragic Honesty begin with the final moments of a major figure’s life (Kane in his deathbed, Yates in his final room of squalor), and then we’re presented with a MacGuffin of sorts: the snow globe (“Rosebud”) in the case of Kane and, with Yates, it’s the missing manuscript that turns up in his freezer (what I think Bailey refers to as “a poor man’s safe”).
I’m gonna suggest that the biographer voice in Cheever, not just as a voice but as a character, is the same one that tells us the story in Tragic Honesty; that the Cheever book is, at least in that one respect, a kind of sequel to the Yates book, and that therefore one of the major delights to be found in this second volume—if you’re looking for it—is the development of the narrator, the Biographer, as an almost entirely off-screen character.
So the first book seems to stem from our Kane-like gumshoe biographer pondering an idea of a great writer (Yates) who somehow, whether because of personal or cultural or industry failings, didn’t get the legacy he deserved—and the biographer wants to know how and why and where things went wrong.
And thus the book is heartfelt and moving and human, but the engine of that book—sorry if this is getting too abstract—the engine feels cerebral, inquisitive.
The engine in Cheever, on the other hand, feels kinda searching.
Part of what turned me decisively toward that impression was the Acknowledgments section at the very back of the book. Notice how the biographer reserves his warmest thanks for his wife and kid—a kid who wasn’t mentioned in either the dedication or acknowledgements of A Tragic Honesty, and who I’m thinking might not have existed yet.
I think Cheever is a book by a new dad and—Bailey’s talents notwithstanding—I think that the “new dad” status accounts for a certain amount of the book’s magic.
My first impulse in defending this idea is to point at the disparity between the amount of attention lavished, in Tragic Honesty, on the relationship between Yates and his two daughters versus the way-greater amount of text lavished on the relationship between Cheever and his children—the obvious difference, though, is that Cheever actually raised his kids, saw them in the house almost every day of their lives, while Yates (though probably a more enchanted father than Cheever) saw his two daughters only a few times a year after divorcing their mother, and thus their presence in his life was mostly psychic. A kind of mournful longing.
Also, Cheever’s relationship with his kids was arguably more complex than Yates’s, since each of his three kids manifested a kind of battlefield on which to grapple with his own demons.
His daughter Susan wasn’t enough of a lady.
His middle son Ben wasn’t enough of a man.
His youngest son Federico wasn’t capable enough.
Thus, for a closeted, homophobic, bisexual autodidact with serious insecurities about his masculinity and intelligence, Cheever looked into those kids’ eyes and saw some menacing crystal balls.
So maybe the argument about Cheever being a “new dad’s” book doesn’t hold much water in that respect, since the second biographical subject was simply more exposed to his children than the first; but, that being said, I don’t think most literary biographers would have probed Cheever’s parent-child dynamics with such Karamazovian density and grandeur and depth unless, from firsthand experience, the biographer understood how critical those relationships are for a writer-parent. Surely most would have focused mainly on Cheever’s tormented sexuality—which under Bailey’s watch is handled with detail and understanding and care, but it’s not regarded as a kind of mystical planchette to be held over every letter the guy ever wrote, which is the route I’m pretty sure most biographers would have taken.
Another Thing About the Biographer, Though
I’m guessing Bailey’s work involves lots of travel and a rigorous interview regimen and ten-hour days in quiet rooms with huge stacks of work and the door closed behind him.
What I’m imagining in other words is an author so deeply immersed in the atom-parsing scrutiny of his work that he occasionally sees giant squid drifting past his window.
Similarly, when I think of John Cheever at his typewriter pecking out some despairing sex confession, I think of a man marooned on an island.
Both of these writers, the biographer and his subject, strike me as being intensely alone with and focused on their work, albeit alone in different ways: one energetic and curious, the other beleaguered and discouraged. But at the end of the day they have that literary solitude in common.
What I’m wondering is if this wasn’t another wavelength on which the biographer was able to commune with his subject.
I’m guessing too that, in becoming a parent, a person becomes more mindful of their marriage as its own separate organism from the task of parenting. Something that needs to be nurtured in its own right. I’m reminded of Celine (Julie Delpy) saying in Before Midnight that “we all get dragged through our parents’ lives”–which I think is also very pointedly true about spouses.
With that in mind: if a writer is working on a long, immersive, demanding project while also trying to sustain a normal marital life, there’s definitely something adulterous about their relationship to that project. If you’re working on a novel, for instance, and you’re really in the thick of it, there’s this way in which your social interactions at the end of a rigorous day of writing can become kinda spacey, milky; you can be physically in the presence of loved ones but mentally you’ve run off for some cognitive tryst with this other entity in your life: The Book.
At the time that he’s working on Cheever, Bailey is a newly successful author in his own right. A father and a husband with domestic responsibilities who also happens to make his living in a creative field (writing) that pulls from (and in some cases probably weighs upon) those other domestic responsibilities. And, since he’s writing here about two incredibly autobiographical fiction writers, Bailey is attuned to the symbiotic relationship whereby the book that you’re writing can infiltrate a marriage, and a marriage can infiltrate the book (John Cheever is a particularly harrowing model for how a writer can use their work as a canvas for marital spite).
For a novelist, the subject of your work can be kinda nebulous. You’re writing about made-up people in a made-up setting.
If you’re a biographer, on the other hand, the subject of your book has a face, and a name, and a public reputation and a whole infinitely nuanced and complicated private life of their own.
I realize my thinking here is kinda scattered: what I’m tryna say is that I think part of the magic in this Cheever biography comes from Bailey, or the biographer-character, being newly and vividly sympathetic to the idea of juggling a writing life with a domestic one.
Look at this passage where Bailey massages out the details of a quarrel between Cheever and his editor William Maxwell, about unsanctioned cuts that were made to a story called “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow”:
…Maxwell…decided that the little denouement…was superfluous….Cheever, however, thought the final image…was imperative….What’s more, the cut was presented to Cheever practically as a fait accompli. Dropping by The New Yorker to correct galleys, Cheever had noticed a page missing at the end…whereupon he asked Maxwell to meet him for lunch…. “I [Cheever] asked [Maxwell] about the cut. ‘Do anything you want,’ I said and walked over to the station where I bought a copy of Life [magazine] in which J.D. Salinger was compared to…Shakespeare.”….Reading the Life tribute, Cheever went into a “slow burn” and began drinking heavily, until finally he phoned Maxwell in a rage… “You cut that short story…and I’ll never write another story for you or anybody else. You can get that Goddamned sixth-rate Salinger to write your Goddamned short stories but don’t expect anything more from me….” According to Maxwell, it was the “only time” Cheever really showed anger toward him, and as he admitted, “I blundered. I thought there were two endings and one was better.” That said, he also claimed (albeit at a distance of some twenty-five years) that he’d only removed the “second ending” in a preliminary “working proof,” so that Cheever could “see how it would read in print”: “[The story] wasn’t about to go to press,” said Maxwell. “It wasn’t scheduled.” Not so. That fulsome Salinger article ran in the November 3, 1961, issue of Life: “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow” appeared the following week (November 11) in The New Yorker. As Cheever asserted at the time, “[T]he magazine had gone to press and they had to remake the whole book and stay up all night but they ran [the story] without the cut.”
The anecdote runs two pages during which we see the biographer simultaneously processing, synthesizing, distilling and challenging the information in order to present the whole episode with neatness and clarity. And he succeeds! And yet, as you can see, that passage is a kind of very organized mess. All the brackets, the quotes within quotes, the dates and parenthetical asides. It’s a storm of information that moves from chapter to chapter with a kind of sauntering tornadic elegance.
He does almost 700 pages of this.
Meanwhile I got a headache just typing it.
There’s a passage on page 214 where we see Cheever teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop for the first time and, for lack of experience, he spends much of the class just reading his own stories aloud. Bailey quotes a student who says that it felt like “an honor” to be in that classroom hearing this writer “on the cusp of greatness” read his work.
Bailey follows it by saying, “Such greatness was the result of a truly mulish persistence.”
He’s one to talk.
As Concerns Roth…
I’ll wrap this up in a minute by talking about how the biographer gets increasingly vocal in the last hundred pages of Cheever but first I wanna draw us back to the fact that I started this Bailey Binge because of my fiendish vein-smacking eagerness for an early copy of his new book, a biography of Philip Roth (basically a personal hero for complicated reasons), and thus, while we’re on the subject of “mulish persistence”, I think we should observe that the central text informing this Cheever biography is the man’s own diary, which runs 4,300 single-spaced pages, of which Bailey (along with Robert Gottlieb, who edited an abridged paperback of those journals) is the only person to’ve read every word.
And he probably read those words several times over.
Plus he read all of Cheever’s work in its various drafts, scores of letters, contracts, transcripts of God knows how many interviews…
The Cheever book demanded miles of pages of research.
It’s a Goliath of a project.
And yet: the Roth biography that Bailey would embark upon years later would prove an even greater challenge. More books to read, more interviews to conduct, more publicity material and drafts and probably letters and emails and transcripts, etcetera.
Hence, in the three or four occasions throughout this book where Bailey speaks of Cheever crossing paths with Philip Roth (“It was my wife who said that she is very grateful to Mr. Roth for having proved to her that someone lives in Newark”), there’s this spooky awareness, on the reader’s part, that Bailey—while toiling here on what he probably imagined would be the biggest project of his life—is unknowingly grazing shoulders with the subject of his even bigger future project.
I felt that spookiness most pointedly in the scene where Cheever, drunk, sneaks around a writers retreat at night and startles a young Roth,
who’s going about his business in the dark.
The Biographer Speaking Up
On pages 578-579 we get a passage like this one where, in trying to make sense of yet another fight between Cheever and the aforementioned Maxwell, Bailey seems to say fuck it and then just jumps into Cheever’s account of the situation and argues with him. Bailey’s remarks appear in brackets.
I recall…that at the time of my first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle [actually a few months after he completed the Scandal], I had no money, I had holes in my shoes, it was raining [snowing?], and I was coming down with a cold. I had published nine stories in The New Yorker that year [circa the Chronicle, Cheever published five New Yorker stories in 1956, one in 1957; he published five in 1963, when the incident actually took place], and they had won every prize you can get [?]….So I went to The new Yorker and said, “What will you give me for a piece of the book?” [By the “book” he presumable means the Chronicle—several installments of which Maxwell enthusiastically accepted for the magazine—but in any case that wasn’t the vital issue in 1963.]…Bill Maxwell said, “I can’t tell yo.” I said, “I can’t work that way.” He said, “All right, I’ll tell you,” and he made me an offer of, I think, $2,000. And I said, “Bill, I can get more.” “There’s the phone,” he said [well-meaningly, as Maxwell would have it]. “Try.” I said, “How uncivil,” and I went downstairs and called my agent.
It goes on from there until Bailey wraps it all up with what feels like the remorse of somebody who’s come to genuinely care for both of these guys.
“[A]nd really,” says Bailey, “taken together, it was neither man’s finest hour.”
While it’s surely the case that, with subsequent drafts, a writer might go back and work as much attention and acumen into the early chapters of a book as on the final, I know from interviews and from his Twitter feed that Blake Bailey, after several years of research, writes his biographies straight through, from beginning to end, at a steady clip of something like two pages a day.
As such, I think there’s an intangible quality to Bailey’s endings whereby the last pages might be no more or less factually scrupulous or eloquent or propulsive than the earlier chapters, but still there’s something vaguely mournful about the prose, a kind of awareness that, although he might still have to trek through another eight or nine drafts, the biographer is presently closing the book on his subject, who in this case is a man he’s never met but has labored for years to understand.
It makes me think of those rough-looking, enormous, tattooed footballers shedding tears during the Superbowl’s national anthem as they hit some kind of emotional reckoning with the fact that, although there’s still a whole game to be played, this moment signifies a crowning checkpoint—maybe even a terminus—to an endeavor so vast and intimate you can’t parse the lines of where the footballer’s identity ends and his relationship to the sport begins.
I sensed that sort of reckoning when I read the final pages of Cheever and it’s got nothing to do with the quality of the writing, which is as strong in the closing chapters as anyplace else in the book, nor does it have to do with deathbed revelations or the pithy confirmation of a thesis or anything like that.
I think it’s just a sense of watching daylight fade. That all of us together, the biographer and subject and reader, are coming to the end of something vast. The biographer his project, the subject his life, and the reader of his two-week companionship with a huge immersive book. One considers all of the things a biographer learns about their subject over the course of so many years in the trenches of research and wonders then what the biographer’s relationship finally is to that subject. An admirer? A stoic expert? Can you claim to be friends with someone who was long-dead before you discovered their life and studied it? Robert Caro seems to get asked all the time if he likes Lyndon Johnson as a person, and if you wanna see a textbook depiction of ambivalence just study his face.
For all the answers he found, you can tell the biographer maybe can’t find that answer, and thus the question that hangs over this book’s ending is what we’re to make of a fascinating and vivid man who’s gone now, who exists merely in paper, a constellation of words.
A fate to which the biographer himself will in time be made subject.
Cheever is a masterpiece and an interesting development in what I’ll go on to regard as a narrator-character who runs across Bailey’s work.
We’ll expand on that next time, when talking about his memoir The Splendid Things We Planned, and until then I’ll be out here in Little Havana checking my mail too often in hopes that today’s the day I get that Roth bio and tell my boss I won’t be coming in, that the pizzas will simply have to serve themselves.