- Reviewed by
The subtitle of this book would seem ambiguous in its purpose. The self-limiting phrase "a biographical memoir" suggests that the author wishes to forestall any critic's condemning the work for not being a biography in the full, magisterial sense of that term. And yet the phrase "by his daughter" proclaims the exceptional authority of the author as the intimate and blood relative of her subject. Thus, her subtitle is at once both modest and assertive, defensive and aggressive. She need not have bothered with such a strategy. Biography, since Boswell, has thrived as an extraordinarily various genre, admitting of the widest possible range of authorial perspectives, intentions, and limitations. Home before Dark fashions a loving variousness of its own to offer the reader an experience of John Cheever as strangely rich and finally affirmative as the body of his work.
The book appears to find its narrative form by inverting a phrase ("in the midst of life we are in death") from the Anglican service for the dead, as it is in the midst of Cheever's long, ultimately unsuccessful struggle with cancer that his daughter begins the search for his life. Every aspect of the book is involved with search and struggle. Susan Cheever struggles with her father's diffidence, with his habit of fictionalizing his life to himself and his family, as she seeks to understand the often painful ambiguities of her relationship to him. In so doing, [End Page 419] she discovers a man whose entire life was a strugggle against insecurity and guilt, self-doubt and self-deception. She finds in her father a restless, sometimes anguished seeker after artistic accomplishment, after security and status, and, most of all, after the freedom to live and to be loved without shame.
Home before Dark does much to change the image of John Cheever, the author who, as he appeared on several segments of The Dick Cavett Show—modest but self-assured, subtly Anglicized—seemed the inheritor of that peaceable kingdom The New Yorker advertises week after week. Infidelity, alcoholism, and homosexuality are all seen to disturb much more than the surface of his life. But the book is not lurid. It is not a chronicle of excess as some recent works about the confessional poets of the nineteen-fifties have been. It does its subject a service by revealing his struggles to have been more than suburban, his hardwon world view something nobler than the "child-like wonder" some of his critics thought it to be.
When Cheever worked his fiction beyond the façades of Sutton Place and Shady Hill, it was not to expose or to diminish the troubled lives he found there. It was to make them more accessible to the understanding that is at the heart of genuine love. In Home before Dark, Susan Cheever does as much for her father, offering her readers the opportunity to love John Cheever as he always hoped to be loved—for both his works and weaknesses, with complete knowledge and complete forgiveness.