Cheever’s Neglected Friends and Neighbors

June 30th, 2009

I recently finished listening to the audio book of Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life. Although I can’t imagine anyone finishing it and then thinking, “You know, I want to know even more about John Cheever,” it’s a remarkable work.

While Cheever often thought himself an unjustly neglected writer, he now stands in the pantheon compared with others he met, befriended, lived near, and/or slept with.

Ivan Gold

Ivan Gold, 1963Gold lived in the same apartment building during one of the worst periods of Cheever’s life, when he was drinking himself to death during a teaching gig at Boston University. Gold, whose drinking problems were slightly more manageable than Cheever’s, had released a short story collection, Nickel Miseries back in 1963. Lionel Trilling praised it as “a masterly collection” and predicted that Gold would become “one of the commanding writers of our time.” Instead, he became overwhelmed by such expectations. He wrote one novel, Sick Friends, that did get published in 1969, but then struggled with alcoholism until he joined AA in 1976. Sobriety did not solve his writer’s block, though, and Gold only published one more book, Sams in a Dry Season, in 1992. Sams picked up the protagonist of Sick Friends, a writer named Jason Sams, and took him and the reader through the slow, difficult process of drying out and learning to live without booze–a process very much based on Gold’s own experiences. Philip Roth praised it as, “a brave, open book, harsh, dogged, and relentless, a confession bursting through the contours of a novel, convincingly truthful and inventively written.” Gold died in early 2008.

Calvin Kentfield

Cover of paperback edition of 'All Men Are Mariners'Cheever met Kentfield during a stay in Hollywood in 1959 and the two men had a brief, intense affair that left Cheever paranoid about his homosexual feelings. Kentfield was a former Merchant Marine sailor whose most successful novel, All Men are Mariners, was published to strong reviews (“… [A] brilliant story told by a first-rate storyteller”) a few years later. But he also had his problems with drink, as well with money and a stormy-tempered wife. He managed to publish a few more stories in the New Yorker after that, but aside from a coffee table book about the Pacific Coast, his only other serious work after All Men are Mariners was his 1974 memoir of life as a merchant seaman, The Great Green. I tried reading it about a year ago but gave up after 50-some pages of self-indulgent, meandering prose. Kentfield died under suspicious circumstances in 1975. It was ruled a suicide, but Cheever claimed that Kentfield’s wife was responsible.

Edward Newhouse

First U.S. editon of 'Many Are Called'Newhouse, who was born in Hungary, started out as a radical novelist whose 1934 novel about the down-and-out, You Can’t Sleep Here, earned him the label, “the proletarian Hemingway.” But Newhouse quickly developed a much subtler sense of things and by the time he and Cheever met and their families shared an apartment house during World War Two, he was on a par with Cheever as one of the New Yorker’s most prolific short story writers. Although out of print for over 50 years now, Newhouse’s 1951 collection, Many Are Called, was considered at the time to be as good as Cheever’s breakthrough collection, The Enormous Radio. Cheever, however, considered Newhouse a sell-out, particularly for his 1954 novel, The Temptation of Roger Herriott, which he thought written expressly for the purpose of selling the story to Hollywood. Other critics had a much different opinion, calling it “one of the really good books of this or any other year” and “a novel of quiet and great distinction.” Newhouse did, in fact, sell a number of stories to Hollywood studios, but he had the wisdom and luck to invest the proceeds in a series of stock purchases that left him very comfortable, probably one of Cheever’s wealthiest friends. He stopped writing and lived off his investments until he died at the ripe age of 91 in 2002, once again illustrating the saying that living well is the best revenge.

2 Responses to “Cheever’s Neglected Friends and Neighbors”

  1. Joy H. Says:

    Thanks for the info re Edward Newhouse. It’s difficult to find info about him online. I’m listening to an audio version of the book, _Cheever: A Life_, and wondered about Cheever’s reference to Newhouse. The book about John Cheever is fascinating but I wonder how Cheever would feel knowing that his journals and other source materials (which tell his private thoughts and intimate details about his life) have been scoured and publicized in this book. Seems like a terrible invasion of privacy. But I suppose this type of thing is being done for hundreds of biographies about celebrities. Seems voyeuristic, but the public (myself included) laps it up.

  2. editor Says:

    Bailey’s use of Cheever’s journals seems a bit less disconcerting when you have the chance to read through the journals that were published by Knopf with the consent of Cheever’s heirs. He was simply a very frank diarist, and one who probably hoped all along to have others read what he was writing.

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