Cheever, 100-Plus

Some months after the fact, The New York Review of Books is running an essay by Allan Gurganus to mark the occasion of John Cheevers one hundredth birthday, which fell on May 27 of this year.Theres not much thats new in the piece, which is a mixed bag of anecdote and reflection. Gurganus, long since identified as an object of Cheevers late-in-life infatuations, shares some tales on that topic, while delighting in the fact that John Cheever wore size-six Weejuns. The author, he also says, was selfish and ruined. He was a child, he was a genius. He was a scamp, he was a man. Dualities, in other words. Or maybe multitudes. To some degree or another, this has all been documented--in the journals and letters of the man himself, in the memoirs of his children,in the biographies from Scott Donaldson and Blake Bailey, and even, infamously, in a Seinfeld episode.As for the work, Gurganus notes as many have before him that Cheevers fiction celebrates daylight as a form of salvation, then follows with the observation that, of course, his pages creating brilliance had to be offset by a contrasting ink-jet blackness, as dark as the pitchiest corner of a Goya masterpiece. Cheever also had to believe in God because he knew the devil. More dualities, which leads Gurganus, perhaps predictably, to conclude by citing the famous final lines of the story Goodbye, My Brother, the one in which the narrator, after violently attacking his brother, watches his wife and sister, naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace walk out of the sea.Granted, its unfair to demand a specific kind of tribute. Gurganus is a gifted and successful writer and, after all, he knew Cheever well. But theres nothing wrong in seeking something that delves a little deeper, that more compellingly explains why people should still read Cheever today. Something like this, maybe, from Ralph C. Wood. Even though its taken from a larger piece published thirty years ago in the Christian Century shortly after Cheevers death, its worth resurrecting in the centennial of his birth:

It lies beyond the province of art, I believe, to announce Gods own glad reconciliation of the world unto himself. But Cheevers restrained and compassionate kind of humanism can provide at least a distant echo of the gospel. At its best Cheevers fiction serves magnificently to enlarge our lives by giving renewed witness to the primordial human truths, yet without pretending that they are sufficient to deliver us from evil. And in his extraordinary presence as a companionable and forgiving narrator, Cheever offers a literary parable of Gods own unstinted grace. Ours is an era of harsh righteousness among many religionists, and of shrill alarmism among many secularists. Against such alternatives, John Cheevers modest and charitable humanism is admirable indeed.


Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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