Critical Mass

Geoff Dyer on John Cheever

By Eric Banks

Interesting review-essay online at the Guardian: Geoff Dyer, an NBCC finalist in Criticism in 1999 for his Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence and author of this year's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, offers a lively take on The Journals of John Cheever and Blake Bailey's biography of the writer.

“Cheever, then, was wrong to talk about his talent being 'confined'; but it is entirely appropriate that this was a word to which he insistently returned. As he explained in 1976, the novel Falconer did not come from his experience of prison but from the myriad different kinds of confinement he had experienced 'as a man'. What he does not say – how could he? – was that the forms in which he gave dramatic expression to this sense could be enlarged manifestations of confinement, that the hard-won craftsmanship that stood him in good stead at the New Yorker worked against his being able to plumb the complex depths of his being. Only in the shapeless privacy of his journal could he do that. If he was 'writing narrative prose' Cheever believed that 'every line cannot be a cry from the heart'. So he stopped crying. In the journals, meanwhile, he wept 'gin tears, whiskey tears, tears of plain salt' and stopped worrying about narrative. The irony is that, while he was instinctively hostile to the splurging of 'the California poets', his own best writing would derive from a sustained 40-year word-binge with no thought of form or – at least until very near the end – of publication. A further irony follows: the consummate craftsman ended up being reliant on the posthumous intervention of an editor to turn this repetitive mass of bellyaching, 'booze-fighting' and self-lament into a book with immense narrative power.”

Read the entire review here.