We gave it an A
Not all writers have lonely, melancholic, doubting, divided souls pickled in alcohol or misanthropic brine. But think of the genuinely cheerful and optimistic writers in literary history — all six or seven of them — and ask yourself whether you would want to read their diaries, with their monotonous record of steady production and good digestion. No, give us a rainy day in The Journals of John Cheever where he struggles against the impulse to sneak a drink before 11 a.m., where his wife won’t speak to him and he makes a cutting remark over dinner that reduces his daughter to tears, where he is sodden with gin by evening and decides that he is unloved and his work is no good, and so to bed with visions of a naked girl or boy to lull him to sleep and prepare him for a remorseful dawn. Here, against all odds, is misery extracted from comfortable circumstances and lyricism and lucidity extracted from misery. These alchemical transactions are what art is all about, but God help the alchemist (and those who have to live with him).
There is little here about Cheever’s own writing or his impressions of other writers, only brief glances at places visited, little about his children, less about contemporary events (the journals start in 1948 and continue up to Cheever’s death in 1982). The public Cheever — a witty, charming man fond of parties and full of jokes, whose clipped accent and elliptical conversation suggested patrician nonchalance — is nowhere to be found. Instead we get a suburban man under some mysterious sentence of inner exile, a yearning, thwarted man whose fear of landing in a desolate hotel room prevents him from leaving his family but who still suffers from a loneliness most of us would require a Gobi or Sahara desert to achieve. Growing up feeling estranged and unloved in his shabby-genteel New England family, he got stuck in an adolescent image of himself as a ”voyeur, the lonely, lonely boy with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people’s contentment and vitality.”
Yet even when these journals begin to resemble a case history of alcoholism and a stalemated marriage, they are saved from being merely depressing by the offhand eloquence of Cheever’s prose and by the absolute candor with which he maps his wilderness and his occasional discoveries of the promised land. The candor can make you wince: Here, as if through a keyhole, is the unedited sex life of a publicly reserved man — morning erections, afternoon couplings, fantasies, pleadings, refusals, impotencies, infidelities. You won’t find a more intimate self-portrait of a writer — at least I hope you won’t.
For Cheever, who was not so much a divided as a drawn-and-quartered soul, there was no middle ground between heaven and hell: ”And oh this poor mind, casting desperately around a room for some detail that will give it form and meaning, seizes always on an ashtray heaped with butts or a crooked stocking…And then he sees the sky!…the perfect clearness of line and color that means that a northwest wind has scoured the overcast and blown it out to sea. So his mind wanders between the ashtray and the twilight while most of the known world lies somewhere in between.” No wonder his ostensibly realistic stories of suburban life shaded into myth, and the myth shades into paradise lost. Robert Gottlieb, the editor of The New Yorker, and Cheever’s children, who collaborated on assembling the book from journals that ran 20 times longer, deserve much credit for this stunning itinerary of a lost man intermittently saved by a change of wind or a moment of love. A