It is difficult to believe that the saturnine narrator of the recently published book-length memoir is the same John Cheever of these letters. When he reports from an alcoholic rehabilitation center that his counselors have told him “only the hopeless lush claims to be allright” and that “I’ve ruined my life with false light-heartedness,” Weaver, in a footnote, counters with the claim that the letters reveal “how much that light-heartedness expressed the inner man.” “If I can laugh I can live,” a Cheever late entry has it.
The Weavers—John and Harriett—were among the few Cheever could really laugh with. When, eight months before his death of cancer, Cheever, along with John Updike, is interviewed on PBS by Dick Cavett, John Weaver writes that “the room was filled with your PSOH (“pervasive sweetness of heart”). It is this quality that happily dominates the letters.
It is as if the correspondents had tacitly agreed that no illness or addiction is so serious, no writer’s catastrophe so spiritually defeating, no marital or parental crisis so paralyzing that it should burden a letter without comic relief.
Prurient readers looking for clues to Cheever’s lately revealed bisexuality or specific accounts of his affair with the film actress Hope Lange may be disappointed. Admirers of unforgettable stories such as “Torch Song” and “The Swimmer” will be regaled anew by the bittersweet wit of nearly every letter. Writing of the selected letters he edited in 1988, son Ben Cheever wrote: “The man who comes alive again in these letters is more complete than the man I thought I knew and knew I loved.” Incomplete though John Cheever may be as a jesting Pagliacci in this collection, that side lives a life of its own.