When John Cheever died in 1982, he left behind a 4,300-page journal that was later (and fortunately for the reader) made available to the literary biographer Blake Bailey. His book John Cheever: A Life has just been published and Maud Newton reviews it for the Barnes and Noble Review.
Originally the author’s plans for this massive chronicle of his own evolution were unclear, but as the years passed and bisexuality entered his fiction more freely, Cheever took to showing explicit passages from his journals to visitors (although he never received the excoriation or absolution — whichever it was — that he craved). He also, notes Bailey, “became increasingly convinced that the journal was not only a crucial part of his own oeuvre, but an essential contribution to the genre,” despite or perhaps because of its focus on sex. “I read last year’s journal with the idea of giving it to a library,” he wrote. “I am shocked at the frequency with which I refer to my member.” It is a testament both to Bailey’s gift for storytelling and to the multitudinous variations of Cheever’s capacity for self-deception and self-loathing that this massive biography engages throughout its 700-plus pages.
The piece gives a clear sense of how troubled and isolated Cheever’s life was. I’m going to put this book on my to-read list.