The loss of his father’s job in 1930, followed by the loss of the family home and the strained marital situation caused, John Cheever believed, by his mother’s growing financial and emotional dependence, all had a lifelong effect on Cheever. When he was expelled from Thayer Academy at the age of seventeen, Cheever was already committed to a writing career. His career, however, would do little to assuage his sense of emotional and economic insecurity. Although he liked to claim that “fiction is not crypto-autobiography,” from the beginning, his stories were drawn from his personal experiences. They have even followed him geographically: from New England, to New York City, through his military service, to the suburbs (first Scarborough, then Ossining), with side trips to Italy (1956-1957), the Soviet Union (on three government-sponsored trips), and Sing Sing prison, where he taught writing (1971-1972). The stories have, more importantly, followed Cheever over hazardous emotional terrain, transforming personal obsessions into published fictions: alcoholism, bisexuality, self-doubts, strained marital relations, and the sense of “otherness.” The stories also evidence the longing for stability and home that manifested itself in three of the most enduring relationships of his fifty-year career: with the Yaddo writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York (beginning in 1934); with The New Yorker (which began publishing his work in 1935); and with his wife Mary Winternitz Cheever (whom he met in 1939 and married two years later, and with whom he bickered over the next forty years).
Cheever did not become free of his various fears and dependencies—including his nearly suicidal addiction to alcohol—until the mid-1970’s. After undergoing treatment for alcoholism at Smithers Rehabilitation Center, he transformed what might well have become his darkest novel into his most affirmative. Falconer (1977) was both a critical and a commercial success. Like its main character, Cheever seemed for the first time in his life free, willing at least to begin talking about the private life that he had so successfully guarded, even mythified before, when he had played the part of country squire. The triumph was, however, short-lived: two neurological seizures in 1980, a kidney operation and the discovery of cancer in 1981, and, shortly after the publication of his fifth novel, the aptly and perhaps whimsically titled Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982), his death on June 18, 1982.