Cheever's Demons: A Conversation With Blake Bailey

In the life of fiction master John Cheever, biographer Blake Bailey finds a haunting tale of mid-century homosexual self-loathing.

BY Charlotte Abbott

March 23 2009 11:00 PM ET

BLAKE BAILEY X390 (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

The good artist who is a bad person can make for a memorable
biography. But how did you cope with your close proximity to
Cheever's demons while writing the book?

This was a man with a daily, an hourly burden of shame, who
drank a lot, which makes you behave badly -- and that gets to
be repetitive across a whole adult lifetime. But I'm not
like some biographers who detest their subjects. That's partly
because I had his 4,300-page journals -- and to know all is to
forgive all. Cheever was not without scruples. That was what he
struggled with. And his kids still love him 20 years on -- so
he can't be all bad if his kids still love him.

Things also got a little sunnier when Cheever got sober, and
the changing times made it a little easier for him to express
his homosexuality in the '70s.

Yes, but Cheever was quite capable of being of two, four, or
nine minds on a subject. Allan Gurganus was the first truly
liberated gay man that Cheever was attracted to, and Cheever
described himself as admiring Allan's clear-eyed frankness
about his sexual identity. But at the same time, anything that
struck Cheever as effeminate brought on his sense of loathing.
As Allan said about Cheever, he wanted someone who was
masculine who sort of happened to be gay. Manliness was very
important to Cheever, because effeminacy caused a visceral
revulsion in him. He'd been effeminate as a child and young
man, and he'd willfully diminished that side of
himself.

Could anything have saved Cheever from all these
agonies?

No. That struggle was the strongest motor of his art. If
there's a theme in his work, it's that we all have terrible
things to hide. Add to that the backdrop of the suburbs, where
there's a terrible urgency to seem happy and successful. If you
express feelings of failure or alienation, people feel
threatened and want to reject you. If Cheever had resolved his
issues in some psychiatric sense, we would be the poorer for
it.

So you're saying that in the end, his life was worth all the
pain?

[
Laughs

] Great artists always have some catalyzing wound. Was his
artistry worth living Cheever's life? You'd have to ask him
that. But it is nice that, toward the end of his life, he
wrote, in effect, "I can't believe I've beaten
myself up about this for so many years." And that, despite
the ravages of cancer, he was getting his rocks off every
day.

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