My first glimpse of Home Before Dark was the tantalizing excerpt that appeared this fall in The New York Times Book Review on the eve of the book’s publication. An admirer of John Cheever’s fiction, especially his stories, I read his daughter’s revelations about his long but troubled relationship with The New Yorker, his alcoholism, and his bisexuality with all the interest that such gossipy revelations are wont to arouse.
But I was also angered by the piece. There was, first of all, the question of propriety. I am aware of how difficult it is to furnish criteria for such judgments. But to my mind, Susan Cheever’s airing of intimate details about her father’s life was in bad taste—a violation, to put it somewhat old-fashionedly, of filial piety. Indeed, it seemed so doubly, for her scrutinies naturally affect her mother, who is still living, as well as the memory of her father. And the impropriety of her exposé was compounded by its timing. John Cheever had died scarcely two years before, in June, 1982, and already here was his daughter performing a journalistic autopsy on his life. The objection that other biographies and memoirs are in preparation does nothing to mitigate the impression of unseemly haste.
But in addition to the slippery matter of propriety, Home Before Dark—the phenomenon of Home Before Dark—poses a more basic problem. I mean its blatant exploitation of literature. Miss Cheever’s reflections acquaint us with a good many things about her father’s character, but contribute virtually nothing to a better understanding of his work. On the contrary, the book is hardly more than our latest example of the trivial, the private, the sensational surrounding itself with the props of culture in order to legitimate what is essentially an exercise in gossip.
As such, its success was practically guaranteed. The preview in the Times christened Home Before Dark as a bona fide Literary Event. And the shower of reviews—in everything from The New Republic and The New York Review of Books to Vogue—confirmed its stature as a commercial literary property. The Times alone ran a review in the daily paper, a review in the Sunday paper, and subsequently—because any Literary Event worth its salt is naturally expected to be “controversial”—treated its readers to an article in the Style section that featured interviews with Miss Cheever, members of her family, and friends and associates of John Cheever to get their reaction to the book.
“I’d challenge anyone to read the book and say it’s exploitative.”
“I’d challenge anyone to read the book and say it’s exploitative,” Miss Cheever said in her interview for the Times. “I wrote out of love and anguish.” Well, I did read the book. And I’d challenge anyone to read it and conclude that it’s not exploitative: exploitative of John Cheever’s personal life, of his literary reputation, of the very idea of literature and the cachet that the “literary life”—heavy with associations of exotic, bohemian pleasures—has for the popular imagination.
Not that I doubt Miss Cheever’s sincerity. I am perfectly willing to believe that Home Before Dark was born of “love and anguish.” But, here as elsewhere, the value or quality of a work is quite distinct from the question of the personal feelings that happened to inspire it. In the present case, Susan Cheever’s feelings of love and anguish do nothing to exonerate her book from the charge of being exploitative. As Home Before Dark makes abundantly clear, John Cheever was a complicated, difficult man. And being his child was a complicated, difficult fate. It is not at all surprising to discover that, at least where her father was concerned, Miss Cheever found that love was seldom unaccompanied by anguish. If the portrait of John Cheever that emerges from her book is “loving”—as most of the reviews have concurred in calling it—then it is a troubled, deeply ambivalent love, a love that constantly bears witness to the many tensions, frustrations, and disappointments that went along with being John Cheever’s daughter.
One of the most difficult things must have been trying to live up to dad’s idealized, adolescent image of wealth and glamour. “Naturally, my father had expected his only daughter to be a beauty,” she writes.
He imagined me dazzling New York society and making a brilliant match. He imagined taking me to the racetrack at Saratoga and having everyone crane their [sic] necks and murmur to each other, asking who the stunning young girl with John might be. He imagined us leading the Boston June Cotillon. His journals include fantasies about conversations with the father of the groom—a Vanderbilt, a Bid-die, a Cabot—in which the old gentleman explains the social and financial obligations I will have as his son’s bride and my father assures him that I am up to it. When I was born, it was my father who decided to name me Susan.
“She’ll have long blonde hair and drive a sports car and we'll call her Susie,” he said.
Unfortunately, reality proved to be a disappointing consort. “They did call me Susie, but otherwise I defied my father’s fantasies. As an adolescent I was dumpy, plagued by acne, slumped over, and alternately shy and aggressive, and my lank brown hair was always in my eyes.”
Reading Home Before Dark, one can’t help but wonder whether Miss Cheever’s defiance ended with adolescence. It may be going too far to say that she sought to even the score with this book; but it is hard to escape the impression that Home Before Dark is her apologia pro vita sua, her attempt to explain, to excuse, to justify herself in the face of her life with her father. “In our family, no one ever asked for help,” Miss Cheever remarks at one point. “Weakness was treated as a temporary aberration, and failure was a bad joke.”
Miss Cheever tells us that she began writing about her father in an effort to come to terms with her feelings when, in 1981, she learned that he was terminally ill. But what began as a kind of therapy took on a life of its own, assumed narrative shape, and turned into a biographical memoir. Or perhaps I should say “autobiographical memoir.” For the real subject of Home Before Dark is Susan Cheever, illuminated by the borrowed light of her father. A better subtitle for the book might have been “An Autobiographical Memoir of John Cheever’s Daughter by His Daughter.” In one representative episode, she tells us about a visit home when her father was dying and she and her mother, Mary Cheever, were trying to make the weak and bedridden writer comfortable. He felt hot, and knowing that he often liked to have electrical appliances unplugged as well as turned off, Miss Cheever pulled the plug on the portable heater in his room.
From his face, I knew I had done the wrong thing. “How clever of you Susie,” he spoke in a high cracked voice . . . . “How clever of you to think I wanted it unplugged.” His words were slurred and faint, but his sarcasm was unmistakable . . . . It brought back all those other times. How clever of you, Susie, to have brought me aspirin when I’m supposed to be taking Tylenol! How clever of you to arrive at precisely the wrong thing. How clever of you to do things so completely incorrectly that it almost seems clever.
As I stood there at the end of the bed, my heart just sank. I had come out from the city to love him; I couldn’t do it.
Even with her father in extremis, Susan Cheever manages to assume center stage, seizing the occasion to play the wronged but sensitive martyr.
“I don’t think I would have started this book if I had known where it was going to end,” she writes in her Preface, “but having written it I know my father better than I ever did while he was alive.” We know him better, too, and while it is easy to appreciate the book’s value as therapy for Miss Cheever, it is difficult to understand why she would want to broadcast something so full of intimate family history. She spares us little about her family, its provenance, its fortunes, its idiosyncrasies. And besides drawing on personal recollections, her own and those of family members and friends, Miss Cheever has also made extensive use of her father’s thirty-volume journal. It is possible, in fact, to view Home Before Dark as a showcase for excerpts from John Cheever’s journals. There are a handful of passages that concern his work as a writer, but the bulk of the excerpts deal with Cheever’s phobias, fantasies, lusts. Many deal, often in excruciating detail, with his grim but ultimately victorious battle with alcoholism. At the request of her family, Miss Cheever cut the more graphic depictions of her father’s homosexual liaisons from the final draft of the manuscript.
“The journals were private, of course,” she admits, “kept as a record of ideas and descriptive phrases as well as a means of writing some kind of order into pain and chaos. But toward the end of his life, after he stopped drinking, my father realized what an extraordinary document his journals had become, and I think he meant them to be read some day.” Perhaps. But without restriction? Miss Cheever herself suggests that his search for a university or library to take the document failed because of the “complicated stipulations” he attached.
We do not really know what John Cheever’s feelings about such matters were. He seems, however, to have taken a dim view of the gossip approach to literary appreciation. “The angriest I can remember him being in recent years was during a conversation we had about Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift,” Miss Cheever reports.
I was fascinated to hear through the literary grapevine that it was based on Bellow’s experience at Princeton, and that the main character was drawn from the poet Delmore Schwartz. I couldn’t wait to tell my father, but instead of being interested, he was furious.
“That’s the kind of speculation I abhor,” he said . . . .“The book is a great work of fiction, it cannot be reduced to gossip.” I always learned something from my father’s anger.
No doubt she did learn something, but just what is hard to say; Home Before Dark does not, in any case, evidence mastery of the lesson implicit in this anecdote.
Part of the problem is that Miss Cheever apparently had her heart set on writing a novel, not a memoir.
Part of the problem is that Miss Cheever apparently had her heart set on writing a novel, not a memoir. We learn that she has already published three novels, and that she left another to one side when she found herself in the midst of Home Before Dark. But the book, especially in the portions that discuss her father’s bisexuality, conspicuously strives for novelistic éclat. Instead of giving a straightforward, factual account, Miss Cheever exploits the situation for its drama and pathos, romanticizing over several chapters her gradual discovery of her father’s complicated sexual life. An early chapter concludes with this cliffhanger:
Late at night the telephone rings. My father has been dead six months, but the ringing phone reminds me of the late-night calls I got when he was sick, and of the call I was expecting then but never got because I was with him when he died. Now the call is from a writer my father encouraged for a while and finally gave up on. He always drank too much . . . .
“I have these letters from John,” this writer says. His voice is slurred and slow. “He wrote me these letters. I don’t know why he told me these things.”
“What kind of things?” I say. His glass clunks against the mouthpiece of the telephone.
“Terrible things. I don’t know why he told me. I wouldn’t ever publish them, of course.”
“Why don’t you send me copies and I’ll have a look?
“I mean I know John cared about me, but I don’t know why he wrote me these letters if he didn’t want me to. use them somehow, you know? . . . It’s dough, you know. I don’t have any. I could get some dough for these. I mean, if he didn’t want me to use them, why did he write me these letters?”
“I doubt that he meant you should sell them,” I say. It is dark in our bedroom. Outside I can see the streetlights on Central Park West and the shadows of the big trees in the park. “What’s in these letters?” I ask. “What are they about?”
“Awful things, about his brother, and Mary, and I wouldn’t want Mary ever to see them,” he says . . . . There is a series of clicks, and our conversation is cut off. I hang up and sit for a moment on the edge of the bed wondering where he was calling from, what dingy bar in what far-off city. And I wonder what could be in those letters, and why my father might have written secrets to a man he never trusted. It’s late at night. After a while, I go back to sleep.
It takes several more chapters, Dear Reader, for our heroine to realize what’s going on. She stumbles onto revealing letters without quite grasping their significance, dramatizes pregnant conversations with her father in which the truth about his feelings is obvious to everyone but her, and so on. This approach undoubtedly increases the entertainment value of Home Before Dark. But it is not at all clear that entertainment value is the raison d’être of every form of discourse—of the literary biographical memoir, for example, where tact and a concern for the writer’s work might be thought to play an equally important role.
Not that all of Home Before Dark exhibits such novelistic garnish. Much of it approximates the detached, hyper-factual tone-that has become the trademark of The New Yorker. I suppose this is only natural. In the early Sixties, John Cheever’s longstanding relationship with the magazine became strained in a dispute over money (which Miss Cheever details to the penny), but it managed to persist until the end of his life. And Miss Cheever has maintained the association with
my father and I used to go visiting on weekend mornings. After breakfast we would drive over to Croton to see the Boyers, or to the Maxwells’ in Yorktown Heights, or up Scarborough Road to the Kahns’, or to the Spears’ in Briarcliff, or over to the Swopes’ on Hawles Avenue, or around the corner of the estate to the Schoaleses’, or even across the river to the Ettlingers’ in Pomona.
Or in case you were wondering how to get to Ossining from Manhattan:
At the beginning of June, 1982,1 drove out to Ossining to visit. I had gone out often that spring, driving up the West Side Highway and the Saw Mill River Parkway to Route 9A, or over the Willis Avenue Bridge and onto the Major Deegan Expressway.
Miss Cheever refers occasionally to her father’s notorious snobbery and “patrician airs.” She criticizes this side of his character, but it seems to have been passed on intact to his daughter. Such things are difficult to trace, of course, but in the end they are as unmistakable as a person’s laugh or tone of voice. Consider, for example, her observation about her father’s brother, Fred:
And it’s true, Fred was willing to play the boor. His admiration for my father and his talent was unstinting, and his family was raised to admire us, our taste, our culture, our innate classiness, as vigorously as our family was raised not to admire Fred and Iris and their way of life.
With respect to snobbery, at least, Miss Cheever is her father’s daughter, manifesting throughout Home Before Dark a superior, patronizing attitude. After she had embarked on her career as a writer, she recalls, her father had told her that “fiction is not a competitive sport.” This dictum came in handy when she had to rebuff an admirer of her father’s work whom she chanced to encounter at The New York Society Library:
“Oh,” says a deep voice next to me. “Are you doing research on John Cheever?”
I look up from the big wooden desk and nod slightly. The New York Society Library has installed new lamps in the downstairs reading room, and their light reflects a pair of wide gray eyes.
“Did you read his first story, ‘Expelled’? It was reprinted in The New Republic when he died, you know.”
“It’s a great story! It’s all there, if you ask me. Everything that came later. What a writer!” The eyes sparkle with a manic enthusiasm for literature, especially posthumous literature.
"Thanks for letting me know.” I close the volume of Dictionary of American Biography and stand up.
“I always thought he was so great. Much better than Bellow and Updike and people like that.”
“Fiction is not a competitive sport,” I say, replacing the volume and picking up my papers.
“These days everything is competitive. It’s not like it used to be you know. I’ll see if I can find you a copy of that story.”
“Oh, thank you, no.” I move toward the door.
“Are you writing a biography of John Cheever?”
“I don’t think so,” I say.
“You should, you really should. He was so important.”
Miss Cheever obviously did not have much patience with this fellow’s naive enthusiasm, but she took his advice anyway. Reflecting on the phenomenon of Home Before Dark, I am not sure which is more dispiriting: the book itself or the reading public’s mindless endorsement of such exercises in mock-candid sentimentalization. And as for the sordid details of John Cheever’s life, I’m inclined to agree with his son Ben. Asked by The New York Times what he thought of his sister’s revelations about his father, he replied, “I don’t think it’s anybody’s business.”
- Home Before Dark: A Biographical Memoir of John Cheever by His Daughter, by Susan Cheever. Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $15.95. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 6, on page 73
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