In his fifty years as a short-story writer, John Cheever became one of the best practitioners of the form, especially with stories such as “The Enormous Radio” and “The Swimmer.” Novels such as The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), The Wapshot Scandal (1964), and Falconer (1977) made him an eminent American writer, and he won most of the major American writing awards. Cheever’s writing is, for the most part, only superficially autobiographical, and the painful details of his life were not revealed until Susan Cheever, his daughter, wrote Home Before Dark, a very candid memoir.
With Looking for Work (1979), A Handsome Man (1981), and The Cage (1982), Susan Cheever is establishing herself as a novelist, and she brings a novelist’s skills to the story of her father, eschewing a straightforward birth-to-death account to weave the contradictory strands of his life into a coherent portrait of the writer as son, brother, husband, and father. She relies not only upon her memories and those of other relatives and friends but also upon thirty volumes of journals her father wrote throughout his career. She divides his life into “two distinct parts”: a “struggle for stability” followed by a “struggle to escape the trappings and traps he had so carefully constructed for himself.” Home Before Dark portrays a man who, like so many artists, found peace only in his art.
The first Cheever came to America in 1637, and by the nineteenth century, the Cheevers were a prominent Brahmin family in Boston. Frederick Lincoln Cheever, however, John Cheever’s father, was ostracized by the “respectable” Cheevers because of his drinking and, through bad investments in the 1920’s, lost the wealth earned from a shoe factory. Mary Liley Cheever supported the family by operating gift shops, a situation that humiliated her husband. Susan Cheever presents her father’s character as being formed by “his anger at his dominating mother and his identification with his weak father.” His parents no longer cared for each other by the time Cheever was born, his conception being “a drunken accident,” and his father tried to force his mother to have an abortion. The young John Cheever found affection only in his adored older brother Fred, “certainly the most powerful and complicated attachment in his life.” John abruptly ended this closeness with his brother when they were young men, deciding that they were too close.
John Cheever married Mary Winternitz in 1941, and their up-and-down relationship continued until his death in 1982. “My parents’ marriage,” Susan Cheever writes, “had always been characterized by periods of anger and silence, alternating with times when they seemed to rediscover each other and the possibilities of romantic love.” Despite infidelities, Mary’s increasing independence, and John’s resentment of her making a life of her own, they stayed together: “It came to seem a matter of angry stubbornness rather than of any kind of virtue.” Mary Cheever appears in Home Before Dark surprisingly little; she must have had some influence on Cheever as person and writer, but her daughter seems reluctant to push too far.
Susan Cheever is also reticent about her two brothers’ relations with their father but not about her own. Cheever’s journals reveal fantasies about Susie growing up to be beautiful and marrying a Vanderbilt, Biddle, or Cabot, but a dumpy, pimply adolescent raised doubts: “My father seemed to think that if I lost weight, curled my hair, and stood up straight I would be surrounded by the handsome and adoring suitors who seemed so elusive.” When suitors finally arrived, Cheever drove them away by seeming too eager about their friendship with his daughter. Susan was also afraid of her father. In 1977, she wanted to ask him for a five-thousand-dollar loan so that she could quit her job at Newsweek and try to write a novel, but she did not have the nerve to ask: “’He would have annihilated you,’ my brother Ben says now when I ask him what I was afraid of. In our family, no one ever asked for help. Weakness was treated as a temporary aberration, and failure was a bad joke.”
Susan Cheever devotes most of Home Before Dark to...