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Originally published Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Cheever: A Life" — a writer at war with himself

Blake Bailey's new biography of the great American writer John Cheever portrays a homophobe attracted to men, a drunk in denial, a sexist with a number of female muses and a charmer subject to fits of paranoia and mean spirits. Bailey discusses his book Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Blake Bailey

The author of "Cheever: A Life" reads 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

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"Cheever: A Life"

by Blake Bailey

Knopf, 770 pp., $35

Glorious writer, impossible character.

That's the gist of Blake Bailey's impressive new biography of author John Cheever.

"Cheever: A Life" is finely written, admirably paced — and all too informative. It depicts a homophobe irresistibly attracted to men, a drunk who took his whole life to acknowledge his problem, a by-the-book sexist with a number of female muses, a charmer subject to fits of paranoia and mean spirits. Most of all, it sees Cheever as an aspiring family man who put his wife and children through the mill.

Lest we dwell too much on the negative, we're also talking about a high-school dropout from a miserable home background who went on to win the National Book Award (for "The Wapshot Chronicle"), the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award (for "The Stories of John Cheever") and numerous other honors.

As his son Ben says, "He was at his best on the page."

For anyone forgetful of Cheever's gifts, the Library of America has just issued "Complete Novels" and "Collected Stories and Other Writings" (both $35) as a reminder. In story after story, novel after novel, Cheever achieves liftoff. His prose, even when addressing the most wayward behavior imaginable, seems to breathe light.

Bailey, the biographer of novelist Richard Yates ("Revolutionary Road"), had the full cooperation of Cheever's family in writing this book and access to all surviving Cheever documents, including his journals (so far published only in a truncated version).

Not that he has an easy task. Cheever was a teller of tall tales, and as Bailey notes, "With many matters relating to Cheever's past, the truth remains nebulous."

Born in 1912, John Cheever was raised in a small town outside Boston (the model for St. Botolphs in his Wapshot novels) to a once prosperous family that fell to pieces during the Great Depression. "His parents loathed each other and pretty much ignored him," Bailey notes, "except as a pawn or a buffer." When his father's job prospects were reduced to nil, his mother opened a gift shop to support the family — a move the young Cheever saw as virtual castration.

Into the breach stepped his older brother Fred, who "played out for me the role of mother, father, brother and friend," Cheever later wrote. The brothers, who both had alcohol problems, would have a deep if volatile relationship all their lives.

Bailey traces the writing career from first publication ("Expelled," written at 18, which fudged the fact that he actually dropped out of high school) to his final blaze of glory between 1977 and 1982 (the year of his death). Stops along the way included a long apprenticeship with The New Yorker (he was first published there in 1935), two stunning decades at the top of his game (from the late 1940s to the late 1960s) and alcoholic disarray and decline that reached their nadir in the early 1970s.

The long-out-of-print "Expelled" is included in "Collected Stories and Other Writings" along with other early pieces that show, as Cheever himself felt, that he didn't come into his own until 1947 or so, with the publication of "The Enormous Radio" — an exercise in "magic realism" before the term was defined. That tale convinced his wife that his was a talent worth standing by, although she resolved early on "never to fight with the man again ... since her words would only end up in his fiction."

Other new material in "Collected Stories" includes "The National Pastime" (a hilarious story from 1953 about baseball phobia) and some fine essays.

My advice: Read the work first before immersing yourself in the complex miseries and ecstasies of the man behind it. That said, Bailey has done a near-perfect job of making the connections between the man and his masterpieces.

Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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