Blake Bailey's new biography, Cheever: A Life, has been widely reviewed already, or rather his subject has been subject to a renewed and largely prurient interest from the press. Bailey's book, for all its minutely detailed scandal, is, at least in my reading to date, a serious study of a great American writer. Bailey has clearly read all of Cheever closely and his criticism seems grounded and sound. Not the point of course for the reviewers. At seven hundred plus pages, such a weighty record of any writer's life -- so long as there's a convenient index -- is an opportunity to hit all the lows in what was, after all, in large part, the classical American rise followed by the expected drunken fall. (We do love a success in this country, so long as it can be charted as a cautionary tale.) My own difficulty with the book is neither with the dirt, though there is quite a bit turned, and turned again, herein, nor with Bailey's raking, which actually seems rather sweetly indulgent, considering his subject's absolute shittiness as a human being, but with the biographer's dogged insistence that this life, this writer, requires this biography. I don't know that that's true.
Cheever's daughter, Susan, wrote a rather painful memoir of her father in 1984, Home Before Dark. Her brother, Benjamin, edited his father's letters without any of the usual familial reticence, with, in fact, something more like his father's own ruthlessness. Allan Gurganus, among others, has already shared something of his unhappy affair with the man as well. And among his contemporaries, there were precious few who did not review, endorse and reminisce about the man and his work at the time of his death. So why 770 well researched pages now? Well... let's call it literary stagflation, wherein the reputation is reinflated, even as the somewhat stagnant "life" get one last vigorous stir before all the primary sources are dead and last judgements all passed. But I confess, if the subject, or in this case the work is interesting, I for one rather like a nice omnium-gatherum, into which one may dip without missing any narrative point, (know how this one ended.) In so big a book on so familiar a subject, I can read just the bits, for instance, about Falconer, in consideration for book club reading, without worrying that I might be messing up any potential reading straight through. I can dip, in other words, just like the newspaper reviewers.
The problem for me is that this biography is good enough, after roughly two hundred and fifty pages, particularly about Cheever's family and background, that I want to read it end to end. That would be well over six hundred pages of closely printed type. Now, I may do so yet. But wouldn't I rather be reading the stories and novels collected in the new Library of America volumes? Reading a huge life of, say, Lincoln, I may turn to Lincoln's writing to finish reading the full text of something quoted, but I don't feel obliged, if I trust his biographer (and I did trust, and do recommend David Herbert Donald.) I may want to read more of Lincoln's letters, or his Cooper Union speech, but those excursions are quickly concluded, and even reading about a briefer and less public life, as I recently did, in a critical study of Emily Dickinson, I did indeed turn hourly to her poems, but gaining rather than being distracted in having done so. But reading the life of a novelist... See the problem?
Bailey's biography may be well worth my time, but I have to wonder, having skipped forward after the first few of chapters, to see what he has to say about the composition of particular stories, to read the bit when Allan Gurganus, flush with youth, hair and Southern charm, actually comes on the scene, (forgive me,) to read about the making of the Burt Lancaster movie of "The Swimmer," if my renewed interest in Cheever would not have been better served by a less thorough biographer having written a less comprehensive biography.
There are writers whose lives were so long and eventful, whose output was so prodigious, whose novels are so many, that it seems unjust, if not impossible to encapsulate them and their work in anything less than multiple volumes. Walter Scott comes to mind, or Stendahl. I've read huge lives of both, and both were so traveled, so storied, as to require long study. But John Cheever? It is no slight to the man's memory, or to Bailey's biography, to suggest that I might have done without every detail of his WWII service, every awards-dinner late in life, every encounter with the actress, Hope Lang, etc. Moreover, not every product of Cheever's pen seems to require quite the same detailed discussion.
The inclination to write biography out of all proportion to the importance and interest of one's subject, tends to result in huge books about writers of small gift. The resulting biographical elephantiasis can be so grotesque as to defeat the presumed purpose of writing literary biography: to bring readers back to the subject's work. If Cheever was a major American writer, and I'm perfectly willing to remember him as such, at least until I get the opportunity to read and reread, he may well deserve the full-length portrait and then some that Bailey gives him, but the danger of writing such a book about a man famous for the precision and brevity of even his most extended prose, seems obvious to me.
I wonder now if I ought not to at least buy the first volume, of the reissued stories, before I commit to going on with Bailey's book. Surely reading a dozen, classic stories would better serve Cheever's memory, than necessarily finishing his latest, and largest biography to date? (But then, I wouldn't be thinking of doing even that had Cheever not finally been canonized in The Library of America, so perhaps the reissue was all I needed to get me reading. Maybe I've taken hold of the wrong book first. Seems I might be qualified to write for The New York Times Book Review after all. Who knew?)