A big biography of John Cheever
by John Updike
He was extraordinarily blessed by anyone’s standards . . . but he liked to say that 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.
Like Kafka and Kierkegaard, Cheever felt his own existence as a kind of mistake, a sin.
he had an affair with Lila Refregier, the wife of a friend. “[I] always hoped that something, the love of a beautiful woman, would cure my ailments. I thought that Lila would lead me away from my jumpy past,” he wrote in his journal in 1967. She, many years later, remembered him as “such a nice person, a basically decent person, with something in him that kept him from being completely decent.”
Cheever’s characters are adult, full of adult darkness, corruption, and confusion. They are desirous, conflicted, alone, adrift. They do not achieve the crystalline stoicism, the defiant willed courage, of Hemingway’s. Cheever was not a stoic; he was for most of his adult life a regular, indeed compulsive, communicant at Episcopal morning Mass. His errant protagonists move, in their fragile suburban simulacra of paradise, from one island of momentary happiness to the imperilled next.
“Cheever: A Life” Blake Bailey (Knopf; $35);