Friday, August 16, 2013

A Summer With Cheever

My reading patterns--particularly with novelists and fiction writers--is to consume an author in toto over a period of months:  read all the stories, read all the novels, read the interviews, the essays, the works . . . .

This summer my project turned out to be John Cheever.

In case you don't know Cheever . . . and you probably don't . . . he was likely the quintessential American short story writer of the second half of the twentieth century.  Cheever did win awards for his novels, too (The Wapshot Chronicle & Falconer) but his bailiwick, much like John Updike later, would be publishing short fiction in The New Yorker during the years that William Shawn was at the helm.

Cheever's "claim to fame" however would come after his death, when, in a fit of financial distress and desire to purge the family of Cheever's collected, but unpublished journals and letters, Ben Cheever (the son) settled a large contract to have both released to the public.  Although the media quickly fastened upon the entries detailing Cheever's many sexual exploits, both the journals and letters are of great interest to writers, particularly.  They reveal, in essence, the interior thought-processes and relationships of a writer at work.

Cheever was so New Yorker, in fact, that there is a Seinfeld episode devoted to the discovery of his sexual letters . . . and if you haven't seen it, or simply don't catch all of the subtextual and anecdotal New Yorker elements in Seinfeld, it's the episode entitled "The Cabin". 

Also of particular interest to me were the many interviews that Cheever granted over the years.  Both journalists and the new wave of TV broadcasters had their crack at him and Cheever seemed always willing to oblige a discussion about the art of creation. 

Finally, reading Unpublishing Cheever--a lengthy and protracted legal account of an attempt to publish Cheever's uncollected stories after his death--I was left with the sense that Cheever was a man (as was his family) of many faces, insecurities and doubts.  Over time, particularly when a writer achieves some level of fame, there is the question of trust . . . and that seemed to be in short supply among all parties once the estate was settled.

I did enjoy my summer with Cheever.  At home.  At the beach.  In the car.  But I've unpacked him enough for now.  I have all of the books and they will go back on my shelf or into a box with the exception, perhaps, of The Stories of John Cheever.  Which, as they say, is a classic . . . and a volume I'm sure to read through the interstices of my own writing schedule.

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