BLAKE BAILEY

JOHN CHEEVER ON THE ROCKS

EVEN FREDERICK EXLEY—WHOSE NAME IS VIRTUALLY SYNONYMOUS WITH ALCOHOLISM—WAS IMPRESSED BY CHEEVER’S DRINKING.

DISCUSSED: Babbittry, Bisexuality, Spells of “Otherness,” Scotch and Librium, A Fan’s Notes, Donald Barthelme, Johnny Curtains, Shaky Cups of Coffee, D’Agneau en Croûte in Iowa, “The Boots,” Robert Gottlieb, Homosexuality at Sing Sing, Unsuitable Erotic Spasms

An excerpt from Cheever, by Blake Bailey, to be published by Knopf in 2009

Even at the height of his success, John Cheever never quite lost the fear that he’d “end up cold, alone, dishonored, forgotten by [his] children, an old man approaching death without a companion.” This, he sensed, was the fate of his “accursed” family—or at least of its men, who for three generations (at least) had seemed “bound to a drunken and tragic destiny.” His grandfather Aaron had been found dead of “alcohol & opium—del[irium] tremens” (according to the death certificate), while his father Frederick had been banished to an old family farmhouse on the South Shore of Boston, where he spent his days tippling and reading Shakespeare to his cat. As for Cheever’s older brother Fred, an advertising executive, he eventually rebelled against his own Babbittry by becoming an exhaustively offensive drunk, and later a sixty-something hippie riding a Harley around Plymouth.

Aside from the Ibsenesque genetic factor, Cheever drank to ease a terrible dread that his family and friends would discover his bisexuality—a secret that sometimes filled him with an almost suicidal self-loathing. By the early seventies, he seemed permanently impaired by alcohol. His face and extremities were swollen, his speech was slurred, and almost any kind of physical exertion made him dizzy to the point of fainting. Most ominous, perhaps, were the spells of “otherness” he began to experience: “With a hangover and a light fever I distinctly get the impression that I am in two places at once,” he wrote in 1972. “I am aware of my surroundings here—rain and the beech trees and [also] I smell the coal gas and see the furniture in [my childhood] house in Quincy. Have I gone mad?” These frightening lapses continued, until Cheever was finally persuaded to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at a local church. He found it “dreary”: “The long speech I have prepared seems out of order and I simply say that I am sometimes presented with situations for which I am so poorly prepared that I have to drink…. I am introduced to the chairman, who responds by saying that we do not use last names.” For the next three years, whenever the subject of AA came up, he’d explain that he’d gone to a meeting where someone had blurted out, “Hey! There’s John Cheever!”—though (as we see) he’d found it even more distasteful that he wasn’t, in fact, allowed to utter that celebrated name. In any case he decided AA wasn’t for him, and besides: “I think detoxification would kill me dead.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Blake Bailey is author of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates. His biography of John Cheever will be published by Knopf in early 2009.

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