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Cheever: A Life Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 10, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 44 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, March 2009: In Blake Bailey's monumental, masterful, and, at nearly 800 pages, mammoth biography, Cheever: A Life, the author of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates turns his attention to the "the Chekhov of the suburbs" and his storied, celebrated, and deeply tortured life. Written with compassion and the full cooperation of Cheever's widow, Mary, and their three children, Cheever is rich with detail and chronicles the mournful arc of a lifetime struggling with a core duplicity that ached throughout his writing life--despite a 41-year marriage, Cheever was a closeted bisexual who simmered with self-loathing. Bailey covers the author's childhood, his time in the army, his life as a writer and his literary rivals (Salinger, in particular, seemed to irritate him), his alcoholism (he would struggle against taking that first "scoop" of gin from the pantry every morning while he was writing), and his struggle to play the role of suburban family man. The book is peppered with literary cameos: Updike, Bellow, and Roth are there, along with his Iowa Writers' Workshop students T.C. Boyle, Ron Hansen, and Allan Gurganus. (While at Iowa Cheever made it a weekly ritual to watch Monday Night Football and eat homemade pasta with fellow instructor John Irving.) Bailey also edited two Library of America editions of Cheever's stories and novels published to coincide with his biography. This literary hat trick will no doubt spark a well-deserved Cheever renaissance honoring his legacy as an American master. --Brad Thomas Parsons

From Publishers Weekly

Rebellious Yankee son of a father who fell victim to the Depression and a doo-gooder-turned-businesswoman mother, father to three competitive children he rode mercilessly but adored, chronicler par excellence of the 1950s American suburban scene while deploring all forms of conformity: John Cheever (1912–1982) was a mass of contradictions. In this overlong but always entertaining biography, composed with a novelist's eye, Bailey, biographer of Richard Yates and editor of two volumes of Cheever's work for Library of America (also due in March), was given access to unpublished portions of Cheever's famous journals and to family members and friends. Bailey's book is fine in descriptions of Cheever's reactions to other writers, such as his adored Bellow and detested Salinger. Bailey is also sensitive in describing the prickly dynamic of Cheever's domestic life, lived through a haze of alcoholism and under the shadow of extramarital heterosexual and homosexual relationships. This Ovid in Ossining, who published 121 stories in the New Yorker as well as several bestselling novels, has probably yet to find a definitive position in American letters among academicians. This thoroughly researched and heartfelt biography may help redress that situation. 24 pages of photos. (Mar. 12)
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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 784 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1St Edition edition (March 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400043948
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400043941
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.8 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #697,600 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David S. McIntosh on March 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover
As biographies go, this is a page-turner. Even though one knows the broad outline of the story (downwardly mobile youth, short story writer for the New Yorker, alcoholic, bisexual, years as an out-of-print failure, eventual sobriety, author of late-in-life best seller, redemption shortly followed by death, and being outed in a daughter's memoir), the more detailed story is riveting in a painful, compelling way. It always hurts to see people you love miserable and self-destructive, but that is just the picture that Bailey gives us. With total access to all of Cheever's journals, published and unpublished, and with the cooperation of Cheever's wife and three grown children, he takes us farther than we sometimes would wish into the head of this tortured lion. But what makes this book a two-fer is the quality of the literary criticism. Even books you think you know well, like The Wapshot Chronicle, benefit from the analytical light that Bailey shines on them. Cheever was a genius, and he lived a tragic life that was both sad and monumental. He couldn't have asked for a better, more unflinching biographer than he now has.
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This is one of the best, most thoroughly researched and revealing biographies on anyone to come along in quite some time. Not sure that 50 chapters and 750+ pages were necessary or desirable--among the best are the first 15 and last 10--for anything but Cheever devotees. But a tour de force by Blake Bailey, who has a gift for really getting under this subject's skin, shedding tons of light, and finding humanity in places large and small. Count me among those, however, who didn't need this or any other bio to make a case for Cheever's "comeback." There have to be legions of us out there who never stopped reading his books and cherish each and every time we re-read them. I, for one, can't imagine a world without John Cheever's stories and am puzzled to read that he isn't a high school or college staple. Also, the continued fixation by many reviewers that this book reconfirms Cheever was no picnic on himself, his family, lovers, friends and colleagues, risks missing an important point. We all know incredibly complicated as well as talented people who we can say pretty much the same about--but very few who accomplished even a fraction of the extraordinary legacy of this hugely gifted writer. There's much more to be found in this book then a documentation of pain, suffering and self-loathing. What emerges is a reminder that truly great, one-of-a-kind art-making remains not only incredibly rare and precious but looks so much easier to the rest of us than it really is and frequently exacts a very high price on the constellation of characters around the artists. That certainly appears to have been true when it comes to John Cheever's wife and three children. But as Mary Cheever is quoted as telling THE BOSTON GLOBE: "What's important is what he wrote, not what he did." If Bailey's effort falls short anywhere, it is perhaps devoting too much attention to what Cheever did as weighted against his sublime writings.
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Format: Hardcover
Warning: Direct and frequent association with John Cheever could be hazardous to your mental health.

Over the years, I have read all of John Cheever's 121 short stories and five novels and re-read most of the stories. Until reading Blake Bailey's biography of him (1912 -1982), however, I knew almost nothing about his personal life but - based on what his work suggests - had incorrectly assumed that he was born into an "old money" family, was a graduate of a prestigious New England boarding school (perhaps Groton or one of the Phillips academies) and then an Ivy League college, and was loved and respected by those who knew him best. In fact, as Bailey learned, especially from Cheever himself after reading his personal journals (4,300 pages), he was a profoundly unhappy person throughout his life, consumed by self-loathing and alienated from his family members and associates until a year or so before he died. At one point, he left his wife and family and rented an apartment near Boston University where he was expected to teach. In fact, his only objective was to drink himself to death and he almost succeeded.

After finally making my way through Bailey's 679-page biography and 42 pages of "Notes", I re-read several of Cheever's short stories with even greater admiration and understanding than I had before. I also sensed that so much more of the Cheever portrayed by Bailey is reflected in those stories than I had previously realized.
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After reading Blake Bailey's wonderfully comprehensive biography of John Cheever, one still might ask, "who was Cheever?" It's a fair question and author Bailey does a terrific job trying to uncover the layers of this complicated writer, best known for "Falconer". As is suggested, John Cheever never let anyone in all the way and hence will remain as mysterious as he was gifted.

Beset by inner demons....his nearly lifelong battle with alcoholism and his fear of being cast as a "gay author" (let alone known as a gay man)...Cheever, nonetheless, managed to keep up more than a whit of respect in his adopted home town of Ossining, New York. He drove his family to the brink as he drove himself there, too, and it is remarkable that the Cheever family held together at all. There is a curious "hearkening back to another time" quality about Bailey's book which might cause some comparison of a generation or two ago with today's society. First, his wife Mary stayed with him to the end, though their relationship had lost its commonality years before. Would she have stayed with him today? Second, was it simply Cheever's New England background and his being a product of his times that kept him in the closet? (whereas today he might have been that much more comfortable in the open)

Mostly, it is Bailey's ability to look at John Cheever through a continuing prism of his subject's insecurities that makes this book shine. Cheever, the man, wrote fiction and lived fiction. "Cheever", the book, reflects this with an introspective and highly enjoyable narrative. I fully recommend it.
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