Picador £25 (771pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Cheever: a life, By Blake Bailey

John Cheever took pride in being a Cheevah, descended from a family he could trace back to the early 17th-century settlers of Massachusetts. His friend and sometimes rival John Updike traced his genealogy back ten generations to a Louris Jansen op Dyck, who came to New Netherlands before 1653. Among the literary bad boys, feminists and black-power polemicists of the American 1960s, Cheever and Updike, two white guys from old families, writing largely about suburbia, small-town life and the American middle-class, won the big prizes. "Novels," Cheever once remarked, "are about men and women and children and dogs, not politics."

Cheever's childhood in Quincy, Massachusetts, was deeply unhappy. He was a high-school drop out. His first publications, sketches of local bleakness, appeared in small left-wing magazines in the early 1930s. Making his way in literary New York with the support of Malcolm Cowley at the New Republic, he became, briefly, Walker Evans's lover and darkroom assistant. For a long time he refused to acknowledge his powerful homosexual desires. It was hugely disadvantageous to be known as gay. A few acquaintances assumed that he was gay; most didn't. Drinking was, however, a man's thing, and Cheever became a persistent drunk.

He worked briefly for the Federal Writers Project, got married, served in the Army, and began selling stories to The New Yorker. In the early 1950s he moved to Westchester County, just north of New York City. He had a growing reputation as an author of New Yorker short stories, eventually publishing some 170 in the magazine. He learned later that he was being paid less than the younger hotshots (Donald Barthelme, John Updike) who filled the magazine from the 1960s.

Cheever spent 25 years trying to write a novel, finally receiving the National Book Award in 1958 for The Wapshot Chronicle. In 1960 he moved to a farmhouse in Ossining, New York, published The Wapshot Scandal in 1964, and was celebrated on the cover of Time magazine as the greatest American writer of the age. His marriage, however, was a sham; he was actively bisexual, an alcoholic, and a heavy consumer of tranquillisers.

Bullet Park appeared in 1969, and Falconer, hailed as a masterpiece, in 1977. The Stories of John Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, selling 125,000 copies in hardcover. Prizes, awards, honorary degrees came in abundance. Cheever became grand, loving belated celebrity. As his health deteriorated he gave up drinking, stopped smoking, and died of bone cancer in 1982.

His reputation has gone through a roller-coaster ride. The posthumous story has been astonishing. His daughter Susan Cheever published a memoir, Home Before Dark, in 1984, a wrenchingly honest exploration of a deeply flawed man, whose many failings were painful to read. Some old friends were upset by the way he was outed.

Scott Donaldson's journeyman biography appeared in 1988. He was denied access to Cheever's journals. In the anxious climate following the successful lawsuit brought by JD Salinger against Ian Hamilton, publishers were cautious at the merest hint of copyright infringement. It made for a book which sympathetically told the story of Cheever's career, but lacked inwardness with a writer of this complexity.

In 1990 the New Yorker paid $1.2m for the rights to publish extracts from Cheever's journals. But, when published in 1991, they contained one-twentieth of the four million words. Most of Cheever's extensive friendships, his lovers, Army buddies, and correspondents appear with initials only.

Cheever's candour and self-analysis makes the journals perhaps his greatest legacy. Their full publication would greatly expand the corpus of Cheever's work; but it would be formidable undertaking. The published journals were followed in 1992 by his son Ben's selection from Cheever's letters. At which point, his literary reputation began a slow decline. The Stories rode high in the New York Times bestseller list; it now sells 5,000 copies a year: not exactly in the Fitzgerald or Hemingway league. His stories are seldom taught in US universities, and the novels even less so. But he always had a stronger reputation among writers, and readers, than academics.

To coincide with Blake Bailey's biography, Vintage has published new paperback editions of the Collected Stories, with an insightful introduction by Hanif Kureishi, and the Letters with a new introduction by Jay McInerney. These, and the Library of America two-volume edition of the stories and novels, puts Edward Dahlberg's basic question on the table: do these bones live?

Bailey's immense, readable biography suggests an answer. The life of Cheever has become a lightning rod in the American culture wars. Deploring, as we must, infidelity, drunkenness, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, cruel parenting, and all forms of abusive marital discord (the Cheever marriage was dreadful), there is quite enough here to consign him to oblivion. But the family have become reconciled with his memory, much preferring honesty about his life. It was a difficult process, with an admirable outcome.

To read his stories, though, is to enter into a place where a man struggled, amid many humiliations and extraordinary achievements, to tell what truths he understood about himself, and his place in the world. Reading Cheever is often not a pretty experience, but we do not live in a pretty world. And his kind of honesty, principally about his own wildly conflicted needs, and about his desolate feelings of loneliness, make Bailey's biography one of the great, tough reads of this decade.

Eric Homberger's books include 'The Historical Atlas of New York City' (Owl Books)

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders