Revisiting John Cheever's Suburban Unrest
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. The life and work of writer John Cheever is once again in the spotlight, 27 years after his death.
The award-winning author is the subject of a big new biography, and all of his novels and most of his stories have just been republished. Cheever is best known for those witty, sharp-edged stories, originally published in the New Yorker, about life in New York City's tony suburbs.
From New York, Tom Vitale reports on the fictional landscape that came to be known as Cheever country.
TOM VITALE: John Cheever explained to talk show host Dick Cavett in 1981 that he moved to Westchester from New York City for all the usual reasons.
Mr.�JOHN CHEEVER (Author): I had a growing family, and the education of children and the problems of housing were much more simply answered in the suburbs.
VITALE: But the upside of life in the suburbs didn't stop Cheever from writing about its downside. In his 1960 story "The Death of Justina," one of the narrator's in-laws dies on his living room sofa. Cheever read the story for a Harper audio recording.
When the narrator tries to arrange for her funeral, the mayor tells him that his part of town, with its two-acre lots, is not zoned for dying.
Mr.�CHEEVER: And the importance of zoning can't be overestimated. If a single member of the council could give out zoning exceptions, I could give you permission right now to open a saloon in your garage, put up neon lights, hire an orchestra, and destroy the neighborhood and all the human and commercial values we work so hard to protect.
VITALE: By some reports, Cheever's upper-crust accent was an affectation, but his wry humor was a real part of who he was.
Ms.�SUSAN CHEEVER (Daughter of John Cheever): Many times in my father's house, people thought it was a medical emergency because we were laughing so hard.
VITALE: The oldest of John Cheever's three children, Susan, was 8 when the family moved to the suburbs in 1951. Since her father's death, a lot has been made of his alcoholism, which she's quick to point out he conquered, and his affairs with women and men.
Susan Cheever says too much of what's been written about her father ignores his lighter side.
Ms.�CHEEVER: Not only was he the funniest man you've ever met, but he also took incredible delight in the most ordinary things. He loved to put the dogs in the car and take them to Carvel and buy them flying saucers, which were ice-cream sandwiches. On a summer evening, doing that would just make him incredibly happy.
VITALE: In her 1984 memoir "Home Before Dark," Susan Cheever describes her family as exiles in America, never quite fitting in, despite a family history that goes back to the arrival in Boston of the first Cheever in 1637. It's a sentiment echoed by the narrator of "The Death of Justina."
Mr.�CHEEVER: I stand, figuratively, with one wet foot on Plymouth Rock, looking with some delicacy, not into a formidable and challenging wilderness but onto a half-finished civilization embracing glass towers, oil derricks, suburban continents and abandoned movie houses and wondering why, in this most prosperous, equitable and accomplished world - where even the cleaning women practice the Chopin preludes in their spare time - everyone should seem to be so disappointed?
Mr.�BLAKE BAILEY (Author, "Cheever"): Cheever felt that perhaps the biggest downside of living in the American suburbs was this terrible imperative to seem happy.
VITALE: Blake Bailey is the author of the new, 770-page biography "Cheever," and editor of the Library of America editions of John Cheever's collected stories and novels. Bailey says Cheever, who was born in the suburbs of Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1912, suffered as a child at the hands of his upper-middle-class neighbors.
Mr.�BAILEY: His father lost all his money in the mid '20s, when the textile industries, where he was a shoe salesman, wiped out in New England, and he became very alcoholic. And the mother opened a gift shop in downtown Quincy, which was a searing humiliation to John.
So on the one hand, you have a person terribly eager to be socially accepted by the best people, and a person who hates these people because these are the people who snickered behind his parents' back.
VITALE: Early on, Cheever rejected his suburban roots when he got himself kicked out of prep school. His first published story, based on that incident, came out when he was just 18. Bailey says Cheever was a genius with no formal education.
Mr.�BAILEY: He had read all of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" by the time he was 14. He had read all the major modernists. He had read "Ulysses." He had inhaled Hemingway. He was not only the ultimate autodidact as a writer, but he was also self-invented as a human personality.
VITALE: Cheever reinvented himself for the first time when he moved from the Massachusetts suburbs to a West Village boarding house in New York City when he was 22.
Mr.�BAILEY: And lived this hand-to-mouth existence with no fixed address for some 10 years. You know, he led very sort of raffish, bohemian life. And he indulged his eccentricities, and he indulged his bisexuality, and he drank all he wanted and blah, blah, blah. But once he became an established writer and moreover, an established New Yorker writer, that's when the sort of quasi-aristocratic persona began to develop.
VITALE: It was that aspect of Cheever's writing that caused his reputation to fade in the 1960s, when the nation's social issues seemed more pertinent than the suffering in the suburbs. But his daughter Susan says her father's critics were missing the point.
Ms.�CHEEVER: I think his themes were that intense combination of darkness and light that characterizes all of our lives, if we will see it.
VITALE: John Cheever enjoyed a revival in the late 1970s, when his collected stories, including "The Death of Justina," won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics' Circle Award and the American Book Award.
Mr.�CHEEVER: I just want to bury Justina. I know, Moses. I know, he said. I understand that, but it's just that it happened in the wrong zone, and if I make an exception for you, I'll have to make an exception for everyone, and this kind of morbidity, when it gets out of hand, can be very depressing. People don't like to live in a neighborhood where this sort of thing goes on all the time.
VITALE: John Cheever died in his suburban New York home of cancer in 1982, at the age of 70. He was buried in Massachusetts. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.
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