Dave Wood's Book Report, April 29, 2009
A wag of my acquaintance once said that word processors are ruining the art of biography. He explained that it's so easy to type on them (no carriage return, no worries of hyphenation, etc.), that "if Moses had one, there'd be 17 commandments rather than 10."
In some ways it's true. Back in the 18th century, Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote wonderfully perceptive and readable biographies of writers like Richard Savage in about 50 modern-day pages. But even before the advent of the word processor the modern taste for detail led to biographers piling more and more detail into their work.
One of the great literary biographies of the past fifty years was "Sinclair Lewis: A Life," by Mark Schorer.
Schorer admits in his preface that he had little regard for Lewis and thought he could knock something off in a few hundred pages, but found Lewis's life so fascinating that he ended up spending 10 years at the task and his wife, to help him out, got a degree in library science!
And now we have "Cheever: A Life," by Blake Bailey (Knopf, $35). Bailey who is a foremost John Cheever scholar, takes 770 pages to delineate the life of one of America's great chroniclers of the middle class.
In some ways, one gets the feeling that Bailey found the same fascination with Cheever's life that Schorer found in Lewis. And on top of that has a high regard for Cheever's work.
The Cheever family was a prominent 17th century New England family that fell into ruin for many reasons, alcohol being one of them. Cheever's father was a failure and he never could have attended Harvard without the help of his mother, who, in desperate financial straits, opened a successful gift shop, about which her son was always embarrassed. He felt his family should never have gone into "trade."
And then it's on to Cheever's own rocky life, with a wealthy wife who greeted him upon his return from a TB sanitarium by saying "It was great while you were gone because the toilet seat was never wet."
Bailey chronicles Cheever's monumental drinking episodes in great detail. Author Fred Exley got to know Cheever when they were both at the McDowell Colony. Exley, perhaps the most notorious literary boozer of the twentieth century, was "shocked" at the amount of Cheever's intake.
Bailey goes on to chronicle Cheever's sexual activity which was very active, both with actresses like Hope Lange and many, many gentlemen friends.
Bailey's research net on this topic is vasty. He even mentions the episode in "Seinfeld" when George Costanza finds letters to his father-in-law to-be, love letters from none other than John Cheever.
All this of course is tied into Cheever's literary production, where Bailey shows a fine appreciation of Cheever's art.
In sum, it's a very perceptive if depressing account, made even more depressing by 32 pages of family photos, in which everyone looks like a happy upper middle class family.
It's difficult to review a book of photographs in a column such as this, but it would be a shame to ignore altogether a wonderful book of photos,
"American Home," by Tom Arndt, Foreword by Garrison Keillor (University of Minnesota Press, $49.95). Subtitled "Tom Arndt's Minnesota," this is not a book showing off our Mondales, our Humphreys, our Stassens, our Pillsburys, our Pucketts, our Quality of Life, or our Walleyes.
This is a book about the average Joe and Johanna at the State Fair, on Hennepin Avenue in front of Moby Dick's. Lots of sleazy stuff, but more particularly human beings just getting on with life.
Garrison Keillor's introduction is spot-on when he says "These are people, who, I imagine, did not get a slice of the big real estate boom of the '70s and '80s. They aren't players, they didn't buy Microsoft early or put their money into gold ingots when gold was going up. Their timing was off. They hung around, chewed the rag, bitched about being broke and had another beer."
Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.