John Cheever's centenary is being celebrated in America today with the publication of a new edition of his collected stories.
Cheever, who was born on May 27th in Quincy, Massachusetts, was one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th century and was described by Elmore Leonard as "the Chekhov of the suburbs."
Cheever was the son of a failed shoe salesman - the writer's mother ran a "cluttered gift shop" - and he understood the ambition and inferiority complexes of post-war American life. He could be funny about the "crushing boredom" of life in the suburbs with the "stupid, depressed and uncreative" people who populated their tidy houses but he was more than just an angry critic of torpid rural life. As his contemporary John Updike put it: "John Cheever was often labelled as a writer about suburbia; but many people have written about suburbia. Only Cheever was able to make an archetypal place out of it."
Cheever deftly captured seething middle-class envy and his observations are as relevant as ever. In his story The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, for example, a man eaten up with jealousy about his ostentatious neighbours sneaks at night into the bedroom of a sleeping couple and steals cash from the husband’s wallet.
He was a great fabulist in his tales, too, including the haunting The Swimmer (made into a film in 1966 starring Burt Lancaster) with its deft opening. "It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, 'I drank too much last night.'"
Booze was a theme of his work and his life. His brother Fred was a drinker and Cheever himself became an alcoholic. He called himself a "solitary drunkard", easing his insecurities about his work, and the panic attacks that sometimes came, with copious amounts of gin, which he described morosely as "the only way out". "There is a terrible sameness to the euphoria of alcohol," he once wrote.
He nearly drank himself to death but pulled himself together with a stint at Manhattan’s Smither’s Alcoholism Treatment and Training Centre. After getting himself sober, he completed a brilliant novel calledFalconer, about his time teaching in Sing Sing prison.
Cheever also lived a secret life. He was bisexual and, while married to Mary and raising his children, had numerous flings with men and women. Years after his death on 18th June 1982, at the age of 70, he was featured in an episode of Seinfeld in which George Costanza inadvertently reveals a girlfriend's father's homosexual affair with Cheever. Incidentally, the character Don Draper in Mad Men, a Cheever-type man, lives in Ossining, where the author lived for so long.
His male characters often harbour secrets that eat away at them, and Cheever projected on to them the futility of trying to seem happy while suppressing unhappiness.
One of his most original stories was The Enormous Radio, a satire about Jim and Irene Westcott, who lived in a 12th floor apartment in New York. Cheever wrote sardonically of a couple who "went to the theatre on an average of 10.3 times a year" and whose crackling old radio suddenly and mysteriously allows Irene to eavesdrop on her neighbours. "She overheard demonstrations of indigestion, carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith and despair." Cheever slowly and clinically reveals that the Westcott's are as corrupt as the lives they have invaded.
Blake Bailey wrote a brilliant biography of Cheever - all about his difficult, sometimes embittered relationship with his wife, and his complicated love for his children Ben, Susan and Federico. Although there were bouts of self-pity, there was also great humour and self-deprecation. Cheever called himself "a fat slob enjoying an extraordinary run of luck". His novels - Falconer, Bullet Park and The Wapshot series - are all good yet Cheever believed his own tales of the "deterioration of the middle-aged businessman" did not stand up against the "big, wild, rowdy" world of his friend Saul Bellow's novels.
The recipient of the National Medal for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters was too hard on himself. Many of his short stories are magnificent as he sought to "make sense" of his own life and failings while yearning for "a life of impossible simplicity". And while he could pull apart lives and reveal the nastiness at their core, he was also a man of great humanity, as his letter and journals make clear. My favourite entry from his journals is the following, written after a walk near his home in Northern Westchester:
"Someone had written something in the fresh snow. Who could it have been - the milkman, a boy, some stranger? And what would he have written - an obscenity, a calumny? What the stranger had written was: Hello World!"
Happy centenary John Cheever, from the Surrey suburbs. It's time for a gin and tonic.