Postscript, John Cheever (Candle in a Mineshaft)


Posted on September 3, 2009 by Blake Leath

At long last, I have finally escaped from and exorcised the 770 pages of Cheever: A Life by biographer Blake Bailey (based upon Cheever's 4,300 page journal which spanned multiple volumes and nearly five decades of reflection).1

Upon completing the 1977 manuscript of what would become his most successful novel, Falconer, Cheever wrote, "I think the work is successful and that I may be rich and famous.  I claim not to care.  I can always scythe my fields and walk in the streets.  It is the strangeness of this excitement that I must examine.  Why should it seem so strange to succeed?  I do not mean pride or hubris.  I mean only to have solved most of my problems and to have exploited, to the best of my intelligence, my raw materials."

We should all be so lucky as to find use for our raw materials.

And yet, although Cheever did indeed achieve sobriety in his final years, "Rarely has a gifted and creative life seemed sadder," wrote peer John Updike after the publishing of The Journals of John Cheever, nine years after Cheever's death.

Cheever's 'lostness' for so long, coupled with the interpersonal destruction that accompanied his alcoholism is staggering. 

A Cheever friend reflected, "He was extraordinarily blessed by anyone's standards -- fame, wealth, a wonderful wife, great kids who did him proud and loved him, a long and highly successful career, talent, friends, on and on -- but he liked to say all he had in life was an old dog.  There was his despair.  And then there was his inability to comprehend the despair and self-negation he inflicted on others."

Having been consumed by Bailey's authorized biography in the nooks and crannies of many plane flights and otherwise wasted moments in boarding areas, I have completed the book with much relief.  Cheever's is a difficult life to inhabit, even temporarily and only intellectually and from beyond the veils of time and space.  His was a life in which brilliance was tempered and metered by such depression, addiction, and self-destructive narcissim that one cannot help but wonder, "What if?"

Posthmously, Cheever was described by Dave Eggers as "some kind of freakish winged book-writing angel beast."  Undoubtedly, his writing was periodically otherworldly and often breathtaking.

Yet his life serves, in my opinion, more as a cautionary tale than something to be desired or envied. 

After all, at what cost giftedness?


1See August 10, 2009 entry.