In 1964 Time magazine put a painting of John Cheever on its cover. He’s at the typewriter, and there’s a cage with two ring-necked doves in the background. The blue of my father’s eyes complements the blue of his Brooks Brothers shirt. Am I boasting? Does anyone remember the Time magazine of old? Or the Brooks Brothers Blue? Or John Cheever?
But there he was.
His career and life turned abruptly downhill, but he bounced back and in 1977 he was on the cover of that other great cultural arbiter, Newsweek. Excluding the honors bestowed by those cranky judges in Sweden, I believe he won all the big prizes. His prose is magnificent. I don’t think this is boasting, because when younger I was certain life would have been easier for Ben Cheever if John Cheever had been less of an artistic success. I often returned to his prose, fingers crossed, hoping to be disappointed.
Don’t understand? Well, then imagine having people always looking over your shoulder, as if there were somebody more desirable standing right behind you. Often they’d slip and call me John. Oops!
He’s been gone for more than twenty years. The fairy dust on my shoulders is there to stay. But he and I were different men, and when I was younger, the clash of identities often left me bewildered, and in pain. That’s the bad news. The good news: He infected me with an appetite for language, which has occasioned great joy, and sometimes even an income of sorts. He was also funny. He’d break his leg to get a laugh.
In any case, my destiny is so linked to his that it would not be possible for me to have a website without him being a presence on it.
I’m certain my father would have considered the term “mission statement,” oafish, if not determinedly wicked, but this passage, which ran in the Time article, might pass for his. He said he wrote “to celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream. One has an impulse to bring glad tidings to someone. My sense of literature is a sense of giving not diminishment. I know almost no pleasure greater than having a piece of fiction draw together disparate incidents so that they relate to one another and confirm that feeling that life itself is a creative process, that one thing is put upon another, that what is lost in one encounter is replenished in the next, and that we possess some power to make sense of what takes place.”
That’s the pious Cheever. More often, he was witty. He was self-deprecating before I’d heard the term. The following is from letters sent in 1965 to Fred Exley, who went on to write A Fan’s Notes.
“Coming in late last night I opened the icebox and grabbed at a piece of cold meat, swallowing a false tooth which included a plastic backside and two sharp hooks. Neither the doctor nor the dentist are expected in their offices until tomorrow, but noon is approaching and I seem to be experiencing no more than the customary anguish of an overcast Monday. I keep telling myself that I am rich, beloved by many passionate and exceptionally beautiful women, the owner of an 18th century stone house and a brace of faithful Labrador retrievers, the father of three comely and brilliant children and a frequent guest at the White House. How could such a paragon be felled by a false tooth?
And a week later:
Dear Mr. Exley,
It was the dentist who, in the end, seemed to suffer most. Having got me bibbed and tuckered he asked what part of the bridge had I swallowed. When I said that I had swallowed it all he got white. I said cheerfully that I thought I had passed it. He said, in a hoarse voice, that I couldn’t have passed it without medical assistance. “Not,” he said “with those hooks.” I wished to hell he would shut up; but he seems to have been wrong. It is true that when I fart these days it sounds like a police whistle but I suffer little pain and it is very easy for me to get cabs.”
John Cheever was my father, and many assume that I got a leg up in the world of letters. The name is rare enough to be recognized, and I’m sure that has been an advantage. But my collection of rejection slips is impressive and still growing. While some have loved me because of his achievements, others have resented me for his accomplishments.
He could be a lovely guy. Whenever he got a pile of money, he’d buy me a new car. But Don Corleone, he was not. He was not interested in politicking for his children. He wasn’t even very good at politicking for himself, and was often shabbily treated by The New Yorker, the magazine in which he published most of his finest stories.
In any case, I’ve found that when approaching Ben Cheever, there are those primarily interested in my father, John Cheever. Sometimes I like this attention, sometimes not. In the past, I felt an obligation to try to tell what I knew. My feeling of responsibility was increased by the insane assumptions people make about my father’s success: That it was easy. That it was always fun. That it was wildly profitable. That brilliance in one field illuminates all of the rest of life. That an artist’s pain is somehow not pain at all.
I edited his book of letters, and am still absurdly proud of the preface, which was a crucial step in my own development as a writer and as a man.
I also wrote the introduction to the single volume of his journals. While explaining why his survivors wanted that dark document published, I reported that after I left my first wife in 1979, I moved in with my parents.
I thought of my return as joyous, something approaching triumphal. And even now, I don’t think I was deluded. I was—in the words of Dick Cheney—greeted as a liberator. I supposed that to some extent I liberated both my parents from solitude. At no other time in my life had I gotten so much and such positive attention at home.
He’d stopped drinking and was coming to terms with bisexuality. He’d stopped making the barbed observations that used to send me reeling. She, too, seemed eager for my conversation and as pleased with her son as she had been when he was five years old.
But in his journals I later learned that my father’s observations were not as positive as his outward demeanor indicated. He wrote, “On Saturday morning our son Ben, after a week at a spiritual retreat where he got fucked, has left his wife and returned home, for it seems only a few hours.”
A couple of days later he was resigned to the prospects of a long stay. “My son is here. I think that we do not know one another; I think it is our destiny that we never will. I observe in a comical way, that he does not flush the toilet. He observes that I snore. Another son returns tomorrow. I feel that I know him better, but wait and see. Some part of loving one’s children is to part with them.”
If I was bemused by my cursory examination of the journals, a thorough reading was downright depressing. The book excerpted from the journals was brilliantly edited by Robert Gottlieb. But everyone in the family read along. Few people like what they see in the mirror. Even fewer like to hear their own voice on the answering machine.
I suppose that what’s particularly hurtful about the mirror and the digital recorder is the impartiality. This we should expect from mechanical feedback, but it’s shocking to find that your father sees you without prejudice. That was when he saw me at all. Neighbors appeared more frequently in his journals than his children did. When this discovery was set against the extreme statements of affection with which he jollied me along, I felt a dupe of the first order.
To the extent that my father lived in the world, he spent most of his life with his family, but this was a guy who did not live in the world all that much. He spent most of his time in his imagination, and when it came to that hallowed place, we rarely made the cut. Except my mother, of course, but then she was so often a stand-in for all of her gender, that the attention didn’t seem personal at all.
I remember Gottlieb telling me on the phone, that my father must have been one of the least happy men in the world.
I doubt that’s true. I think there’s a great deal more unhappiness out there than we know. I suspect that my father was unusual for his willingness to report on depths, but not for his experience of them.
There’s a theory nowadays that all darkness is pathology, and Lord, but I wish it were true. But I don’t think so.
After I’d read the journals and before they were published I had many conversations with imaginary readers in which I asked: “Never lonely. Never in despair? Never critical of those you love? Then please, please don’t buy this book.”
Not a commercial success, the volume was nevertheless treasured by an extraordinary number of serious writers. I know about this, because while they can’t thank the author of the book, they can—and do—thank his son.
When my sister’s memoir about my father, Home Before Dark, came out, I was sour about it in public, but now I can see why so many people treasure that book. This is her vision, as the stories are his, as the prologue to the book of letters is mine. It’s a big damn world, the Cheever family, with many warring nations in it.
Blake Bailey’s biography Cheever: A Life has relieved much of the pressure I had felt to testify to the true facts. If you’re interested in the work, you should start with The Stories of John Cheever. If you’ve read a lot of the fiction, then read Blake Bailey. He’s done a splendid job.
I had admired Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates, and was deeply gratified—as was the rest of the family—when Blake agreed to write about my father. When the manuscript first came in, though, I was shocked and a little surprised to find that in his rare appearances, Ben Cheever, the oldest son, was shown to be silly, earnest and dependent.
But while it fails to catch Ben’s true saintliness, it’s an extraordinary biography and somehow marries the myths my father lived with the facts from which he spun them. Nor is it a sad book. Those who consider all unhappiness a pathology, may be infuriated, but John Cheever comes alive again on the page. If you’re going to remember one thing about John Cheever, then it should be that he was often laughing. When the biography was first published I pictured my father in an academic courtyard up above the clouds. Peering down on the earth below, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup he is amusing a gathering of young admirers with his observations on the embarrassments of posthumous fame and mediocre descendants.
Sure, the biography begins with some of what Salinger calls “that David Copperfield kind of crap,” but if you’ve read through the second page of chapter three, and haven’t done some rueful chuckling, then you’re in the wrong scale. That bankrupt was my own grandfather, and the man who hanged himself was my grandfather’s last best hope, but I was chuckling before I got through the first two pages of chapter three. Yes, there were brutal conflicts in my father’s life, there was pain and there was disappointment, but he could laugh at himself and so should you.