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Reviewed by:
Scott Donaldson. John Cheever: A Biography. New York: Random, 1988. 416 pp. $22.50.

This first full-scale biography of John Cheever joins a memoir by his daughter, Susan, Home Before Dark, published in 1984, and the recent edition of the author's letters by his own son, Ben, to provide a wealth of biographical information that, in a way, makes critical and scholarly work on Cheever more difficult for the moment. The difficulty arises from the sudden availability of a great deal of information about the problematic aspects of Cheever's life—his alcoholism, his bisexuality, his troubled relationships with his wife and children, the various forms of his unhappiness. These revelations can have the short-term effect of forcing a rereading of Cheever's works in the light of the newly available information. Scholars and readers can find themselves overly sensitized to clues and double meanings in the fiction, while ironies and understatements in the interviews and essays seem to leap off the page. The immediate effect of this biographical material [End Page 301] is to turn us into the kind of readers Cheever warned against: those who read fiction as thinly veiled autobiography.

In the long term, of course, the effects of the Donaldson biography are beneficial. It provides useful information about many of the formative experiences of Cheever's life—not only about his family origins but about his early work experience, his time in the army, his reactions to success and recognition. The biography includes a good deal of information on Cheever's relationship with his contemporaries, making it clear how generous his attitudes were toward other writers. It provides some new information and insight into his skill as a teacher of writing.

Most important for a literary biography, Donaldson's book places the production of Cheever's major fiction within the context of his life, both of his upbringing and of the personal events contemporary to the writing of the novels and stories. This material helps us to understand the progressively darkening tone of the novels and the burst of affirmation in Falconer; it also permits us to grasp possible origins of the idea for Falconer that make it seem more an organic part of Cheever's overall production than the startling departure that some found it at the time it was published.

Having had the cooperation of Cheever's wife and children and many of his friends and associates as well as access to the author's letters and journals has permitted Donaldson to provide a much fuller sense of Cheever's life than what we could take away from the many interviews he gave. Donaldson's book suggests that we might do better to trust certain of the autobiographical implications of Cheever's fiction than the apparently direct autobiographical "revelations" of the interviews. Despite the sensational aspects of some of the material that Donaldson is making public for the first time, he affirms the primacy of the work of imagination and style that transforms the stories and novels into the something more than the "crypto-autobiography" that Cheever insisted that good fiction must be.

Lynne M. Waldeland
Northern Illinois University
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