by Blake Bailey
The Depression came early to New England, and by the mid-twenties the shoe industry was all but dead. This, of course, was not openly discussed in the Cheever household, though John could tell his father was becoming dispirited. He overheard the man say to a neighbor, while raking the driveway, that he was prepared to die. As Cheever would later tell it, Frederick had sold out of the shoe business (whether that meant the manufacturing firm of “Whittredge and Cheever” or some lesser concern is, again, a mystery) and gone into an investment partnership with another fellow, alternately named “Mr. Forsyth” and “Harry Dobson” in Cheever’s journal. One day, while playing his four holes of morning golf, Frederick espied what appeared to be a coat hanging from a tree near the fairway; naturally, this proved to be none other than Forsyth or Dobson, hanged. Fortunately, he was married to a resourceful woman, who saved the family from certain ruin by opening a gift shop in downtown Quincy. In fact, it was becoming more and more common at the time for middle-class women to go into business for themselves-what with
canned foods and labor-saving devices that lessened the drudgery of housekeeping-~and certainly this came all the more easily to an Old feminist like Mary Liley Cheever. Indeed, one might even venture to say that as a gift-shop proprietress she’d found her niche: genial and motherly, she was able to strike an instant rapport with most customers, who came to regard the Mary Cheever Gift Shoppe as the place to go for something a little better than the usual dime-store bric-a-brac. It was true that Mrs. Cheever could be a bit pushy at times. As she herself confided, a little ruefully, the harder she tried to “match the purchase to the person,” the more determined the person became to buy what she or he had picked out in the first place.
John was aghast that his mother had gone into trade: After this he was to think of her, not in any domestic or maternal role, but as a woman approaching a customer in a store and asking, bellicosely, ‘ls there something I can do for you?’ ” Nor was it simply the doorsteps and china dogs and doilies that she foisted on a public consisting mostly of her former peers, but the very furniture out from under her family’s backs. “You can’t sell this,” John would remonstrate, “it doesn’t belong to you.” To which the woman would sensibly reply, “Well, do you have $100?” She even sold his own bed (and decades later, at a Sutton Place party, Cheever bumped into an old Quincy acquaintance who informed him that she herself had bought one of the family beds). It wasn’t long before his mother’s almost demonic élan began to bear fruit. In 1929, she opened a second store, the Little Shop Around the Corner, purveying dresses and accessories reflecting “the same exclusiveness and beauty which is already evident in her gift shoppe,” as the Quincy Patriot Ledger reported. Mrs. Cheever relished her success, such as it was, and became every inch the plucky, hard’ boiled businesswoman: “She routed thieving gypsies,” her son recalled, “brained an armed robber with a candlestick and cracked jokes with the salesmen.”
The vulgarity of it all was an “abysmal humiliation” to Cheever, whose innate sense of alienation was burden enough. Nor did he ever quite recover from “the trauma, the earthquake,” of his family’s awful decline. Anything smacking of gift-shop knickknackery would alway repulse him to the point of illness.
When Faulkner won the Nobel in 1949, Cheever showed he could still channel what Papa might say If he were to write a letter for the occasion to the New York Times: “I think it’s fine that Bill Faulkner got the Nobel Prize. . . . The Nobel Prize is like that purse they give in Verona for the shot who bags the most sitting ducks on a clear day. There are other kinds of shooting, bur they don’t give prizes for it. There is the kind of shooting that you get in the Abruzzi in the May snows and underwater shooting and the kind of lonely shooting that you have when you take your sights in a pocket-mirror and bring down a grizzley [sic] over your left shoulder but they don’t give prizes for that kind of shooting. Mr. Thomas Hardy and Mr. Herman Melville did that kind of shooting but they never got any prizes.”
Mary didn't lose time flexing her linguistic muscles with Cheever. “The folly of a fool,” she once murmured-in French-when her impoverished boyfriend waxed ecstatic over a New Yorker sale. Both seemed a little ambivalent in the beginning. What Cheever remembered about their first date was that his future wife had arrived three hours late; what she remembered was the taste of Scotch (she’d never tried it before) and boredom. Cheever was holding forth about life at Yaddo, which might have struck the idealistic young woman as a bit frivolous, at least as Cheever told it. “I didn’t want to hear about the love affairs of Leonard Ehrlich and so on,” she later remarked.
Cheever offered his services as reader and scribe to some of the illiterate Southerners, whose letters (both written and received) were a lifelong source of delight. One man solemnly dictated a request for special leave so he could witness his brother’s execution (“the first electrocution in the family”); a spurned young woman wrote-and Cheever read aloud-“ ‘Don’t you remember what you done to me on the floor? Didn’t you mean it?’ . . .” In general Cheever preferred the company of regular guys-illiterate, Southern, or otherwise-whose weekend high jinks in Augusta tended to attract the notice of military police. Every weekend the city swarmed with soldiers, and Cheever was loath to miss the whole Hogarthian spectacle-the teeming juke joints and even the relatively staid places where locals tried to show their GI guests some Southern hospitality: “[VVe] went to a dance at the Eagle Club, Eyrie number seven, believe it or not,” Cheever reported. “I danced for about one minute with a southern beauty of about eleven who was uneasy about dancing with a Yankee.”
“To the extent that in the writing world any material-sketch, article, newspaper report, fiction--is called a story, john Cheever’s book . . . may be called a collection of stories”; such stories, however, were little more than “moments or moods caught in the lives of his characters, pointed in quality, but inconclusive in effect.” Cheever’s tone of remote pessimism was also condemned, as if he were regarding his characters with the same haughty nonchalance that Eustace Tilley fixes on that butterfly. In the New York Times Book Review, VVilliam DuBois stressed the author’s connection with the magazine by way of explaining the “peculiar epicene detachment, and facile despair” of the stories. Such charges were not unwarranted: for the past eight years, ever since Cowley’s advice that he shorten his work, Cheever had been training himself to write the sort of muted, elliptical “casual” that went over at The New Yorker, rarely allowing himself the luxury of longer, more ambitious stories. Reviewer Weldon Kees emphasized the difference: though Cheever’s New Yorker stories (“among the best that have appeared there recently”) were similar to the point of tedium-at least when “read one after another”-the long, anomalous “Of Love: A Testimony” gave a glimpse of what Cheever was “capable of doing when he has room enough in which to work for something more than episodic notation and minor perceptive effects.”
As for Struthers Burt, in hindsight he seems prophetic, though it’s hard to figure how he could have made such extravagant claims on the basis of The Way Some People Live. “Unless I am very much mistaken,” he declared, “when this war is over, John Cheever . . . will become one of the most distinguished writers, not only as a short story writer but as a novelist.” Far from finding the stories trivial, Burt applauded their revelation of the “universal importance of the outwardly unimportant,” and thought the author’s apparent pessimism was in fact a laud~ able grasp of human ambiguity (“a deep feeling for the perversities and contradictions, the worth and unexpected dignity of life”). Like other reviewers, Burt noted a certain monotony in Cheever’s New Yorker fiction and cautioned the author lest his “especial style” harden into an affectation: “Otherwise the world is his.”
Cheever took both praise and blame with a grain of salt-remark ably so for a first-time author. He was amused by DuBois’s crack about his “facile despair,” seeing the justice of that and other complaints. As he wrote Mary, “[A]ll in all-even though they don’t like me-the reviewers seem to be very diligent and earnest people, anxious to help a gloomy young writer onto the right path, and to safeguard the investment of their readers.
By the end of 1947, Cheever still hadn’t produced a manuscript, though he claimed a longish one existed, and finally Linscott suggested he write an outline, at least, to give the salesmen something to Work with. Cheever reluctantly obliged, though he doubted he could convey what was best about the novel-the actual writing-and so took pains to play this up in the outline, which itself is quite cleverly written:
The writing, or the surface of the book, which has concerned me a good deal, seems to me clear and reliable. I speak of the writing since it seems very important to me . . . that it should appear decorous and beautiful and I sometimes think of the story as having the polish, the sentimental charms of a greeting card with an obscene message. . . .
The story centers on a family; the Fields. Aaron, Sarah and their two sons, Tom and Eben. There is much of a country that I love in this book-much scenery, much rain, many semi-colons-for these are bewildered children in a beautiful garden.
The story begins in 1936 and has in it’s opening the appearance of something to be read in bed on a rainy night in an old house. . . .
Sarah Field . . . is stout, she has yielded her beauty without a struggle, she has attended a White House reception, dreamt of carnal relations with Padarewski and two bibles have come apart in her hands. . . .
. It might have seemed a good sign that he was inter« viewed for Harvey Breit’s column in the New York Times Book Review, but after their lunch together Cheever fretted in his journal that he’d behaved in an “unstable” and “indiscreet” manner. On the contrary, he’d come across as a “tough-minded short-story advocate” (so Breit wrote), who considered the novel an “artificial” and “anachronistic” form-mot an entirely disinterested apologia, under the circumstances, though actually Cheever’s aesthetic ideas had changed very little over the years, reflecting his View of modern life as fragmented and nomadic: “The short story is determined by moving around from place to place, by the interrupted event. The vigorous nineteenth-century novel is based on parish life and lack of communications. . . . I’ve always noticed that just as people are about to tell you the secret they’re transferred to another city. The way people drop out of sight. Really drop! ”
In that same issue of the Book Review (May 10, 1953) was James Kelly’s critique of The Enormous Radio, which was everything Cheever might have hoped for (if he hadn’t been so morbidly insecure at the time). Kelly described the stories as “miraculous expressions of life among the middle-class have-not-enoughs,” though he added (as did other critics) that the stories were less impressive when read one after another, as the reader discovered a certain sameness of theme and setting. “But not one can be called insignificant or shoddy or inadequately observed,” Kelly concluded. “No American writer in business today is more on top of his genre than Mr. Cheever.” William Peden, writing in the Saturday Review, was also enthusiastic: “John Cheever shows an absolute genius for taking the usual and transforming it into the significant. . . . [He] is one of the most undervalued American short story Writers.”
What Cheever was apt to notice most in Peden’s review, however, Was an incidental remark that his stories were “less spectacular” (albeit more likely to “improve with rereading”) than those of J. D. Salinger, Whose Nine Stories was published around the same time to ecstatic acclaim. Indeed, a comparison of the two books was the basis of one of the most wounding reviews of Cheever’s career-all the worse given that the reviewer, Arthur Mizener, had become one of the nation’s most prominent critics after the recent success of his pioneering Fitzgerald biography, The Far Side of Paradise. Appearing in The New Republic, Mizener's review was framed as an assessment of the New Yorker story. Salinger exemplified the good sort of NY writer, Cheever was the bad. An empty craftsman.
Cheever loved being a father in the abstract, but the everyday facts of the matter were often a letdown. He was dismayed by his oldest child, for one thing, as she continued to “overthrow his preconceptions” by remaining, as he put it, “a fat importunate girl.” Cheever was pitiless in judging female beauty--“You were either a dish or a drudge,’ his wife repeatedly insisted-and when the young Susan failed a measure up, he was bewildered and sorry for all concerned. He’d wanted a “frail daughter,” after all, a “wraith” with long blond hair who drove a sports car and went by the kicky name of Susie. In any event they did call her Susie, but to Cheever’s mind the name didn’t jibe with the hoyden who chewed with her mouth open and said all the wrong things (“How long does it take to hang a man?”): “The tragic instant’ -Cheever wrote, during a bad patch when his daughter was all of eight- “when a parent loses faith with his child.”
“They were completely unable to cope with me,” said Susan Cheever, after some fifty years of blessed retrospect. The main issue, as her parents always saw it, was her weight-if only she looked right, everything else would follow-and in a way that was true, since they harassed her
so relentlessly on the subject that her behavior was mostly a matter of reprisal. They put her on diets, made her eat Ayds candies to cut her appetite, and kept up a constant running commentary on what she ate at dinner. Every so often, too, they’d invite her grossly obese pediatrician to the house so he could deliver a stern lecture to the little girl on the evils of overeating. Deprived of snacks and the like, Susan took to stealing food (and therefore eating many times what she would have eaten normally): she hollowed out cakes they were saving for company (leaving a “veneer of icing on top”); she rooted around in drawers, closets, and desks, searching for hidden chocolate and whatever else he could find. “They had no privacy,” she said. “I read everything in the house, I was in every secret compartment of every desk, I became like a little criminal. I was lying, I was cheating, I was stealing. Their cruelty about my weight was not one-way. We were in a dance of death on that subject.” Many years later, after Cheever had stopped drinking, he often assuaged his melancholy by gorging on cheese and crackers: “And I remember, as a father, how ruefully I separated my daughter from her crackers and cheese when all she sought, by stuffing herself, was to understand her place in the world.”
At the time he didn’t see it that way; rather he regarded himself as a loving, well-meaning, long-suffering father who was simply trying to talk his only daughter out of being fat, whereas she in turn responded with unsavory remarks and ties such as banging her head against the wall and constantly sucking her thumb. She wasn’t doing well in school either, and finally (at age eleven) they sent her to a psychiatrist in White Plains named Dr. Sobel. Apparently the man didn’t see what all the fuss was about-certainly the girl was intelligent enough (“She has a Cadillac motor in there,” he observed). The parents were another matter: Dr. Sobel remarked that Mary was a “passive” personality, which (he opined) was why Cheever had married her, whereupon the affronted husband rose from his chair and stood protectively beside his wife. In his own version of the meeting, however, Cheever tended to omit that detail, informing Susan that what Sobel had really said (furtively taking him aside) was: “Be careful. If anyone looked at me the way your Wife looked at your daughter, I’d suck my thumb too!”
Then as later, Cheever had his own way of seeing things, or at least of telling them.