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

Lionized as one of
America's greatest writers and a suburban gentleman during
his lifetime, John Cheever is also remembered as a legendary
drunk and bitterly repressed bisexual, thanks in part to his
daughter Susan Cheever's memoir
Home Before Dark

. That paradox, and the ways that Cheever's fiction and
journals magnified and reflected it, is at the core of Blake
Bailey's gossipy and penetrating portrait. As Bailey tells it,
Cheever was driven to escape his childhood as the son of
financially strapped alcoholics. Yet as an adult in the postwar
suburbs of Boston, his roiling homosexual desires always
threatened his carefully cultivated blue-blood facade, driving
him to drink, to heterosexual posturing, and
to furtive gay affairs that eviscerated his marriage
to wife Mary Cheever. Yet it's a tribute to Bailey's
insights and storytelling ability that, despite the
book's running to nearly 700 pages, the tragedy of
Cheever's life (which ended in 1982) often makes for
sublime and memorable reading.

Advocate.com: Your biography adds some unflattering new details to our
already dark portrait of Cheever -- revealing his sexual
relationship with his brother, and how he became a sexual
predator later in life. Did those aspects of his character
shock you
?Blake Bailey:

The only thing that shocked me was the Max Zimmer episode.
That's the only one you can bring the word
"predatory" to bear on. It was a logical culmination
of Cheever's tragic arc -- after a lifetime of repression,
he quits drinking, and can't drown his sexual impulses
anymore. At age 65, he knows that time is short, and that he
owes it to himself to experience his nature. Susan
Cheever's book and Scott Donaldson's biography cast
this as a redemptive story, about how Cheever comes to terms
with his homosexuality and has an affair with a younger man.
But Zimmer told me that he was enraged that their version had
become the public story. Of course, what he regards as the real
story needs to be mediated.

Mediated how?

By taking other points of view into account, like Cheever's
journal. In the journal, you see Cheever rationalizing about
helping this man from Utah, trying to get him
a literary career in the East, but on some level he
knows he's exploiting him. Cheever's marriage is totally empty
at this point, and he's going to do what he has to do to get
some satisfaction and keep it. And if that means dropping hints
that he's going to stop helping Zimmer, then he does
it.

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