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)

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