I’m reading Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever, Cheever. It’s a peculiar life story–both bohemian and straight-laced. In the opening chapters, it’s been oddly hard for me, as an English person, to emotionally connect with Cheever’s pride of being a “Cheevah,” his family’s hyper-class consciousness, their obsessive guilts and shames. I mean, I get it, but I don’t think I get it. Perhaps if I had lived in upperclass Boston, it would all make more sense.
And yet almost all the prose that Bailey includes of Cheever’s is breathtaking. He possessed this ability to take the usual humdrum middle class desires and anxieties and, by putting them down on the page so exactly, make something magical of them. He is also very funny.
Early in the book, Bailey includes this imitation of Hemingway, from 1949: Cheever is imagining Hemingway writing a letter to the New York Times about the awarding of the Nobel Prize to William Faulkner.
I think it’s fine that Bill Faulkner got the Nobel Prize… The Nobel Prize is like that purse they give in Verona for the shot who bags the most sitting ducks on a clear day. There are other kinds of shooting, but they don’t give prizes for it. There is the kind of shooting that you get in the Abruzzi in the May snows and underwater shooting and the kind of lonely shooting that you get when you take your sights in a pocket-mirror and bring down a grizzley [sic] over your left shoulder but they don’t give prizes for that kind of shooting. Mr. Thomas Hardy and Mr. Herman Meville did that kind of shooting but they never got any prizes.
To me, the part about the bear is the weakest; the naming of Hardy and Melville utterly inspired.