One of the unforeseen pleasures of having a blog is to be able to promote a friend's work, especially when that work is so fine. Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey is published today. For those readers who love literary biography, this will be an unalloyed pleasure. Not that Blake will need additional promotion–his book is reviewed on page one of Sunday's NYTimes Book Review, Updike reviewed it (respectfully if crankily) in The New Yorker, all the major players are commenting. But more, there's something about Cheever, and his fabulistic take on suburbia that plays to our enduring fascination with and loathing of life in American suburbs. I remember in high school when his big red book of stories was everywhere in my Shaker Heightsian suburbia, a book containing one of the great prologues of all time, an ode to an older Manhattan, and whose first short story, "Goodbye, My Brother," is perhaps my favorite short story ever. Cheever could effortlessly throw in high flown phrasing, "where full fathom five our father lies," and get away with it, and then fell you with the simply stated: "what can you do with a man like that?"
Blake and I met in Manhattan in our desultory post-collegiate youth, both of us intent on becoming novelists, and drinking far more successfully than we wrote. I managed to publish a few things in the NYTimes and he, well, he kept writing. I used to joke that he would become a literary biographer, which, to aspiring Hemingways, was like an actor dreaming to be Laurence Olivier and winding up Wayne Rogers as Trapper John. Blake's first major book was a stellar bio of Richard Yates, a "landmark event," said the NYTimes, a review written by Janet Maslin, the wife of Cheever's son (which, long story short, resulted in Ben Cheever's asking if Bailey would consider a
biography of his father). Now he has written the definitive bio of the iconic chronicler of post-war American suburbia. Cheever lived a harrowing inner life, was a terrible alcoholic, the horniest man alive, according to a famous actress, a man who could be monstrously exploitative of young male students, but he was also a touching, sad human being. Blake gets it all exactly right. Again, if you like literary bio, there's none better. Except for maybe Blake's Yates. Highly recommended. It may well inspire you to read or reread Cheever himself, now republished in two fine Library of America volumes, edited by Blake, The Complete Novels and The Collected Stories