From “On the Literary Life,” a series of excerpts from John Cheever’s journals published in our Fall 1993 fortieth-anniversary issue. Cheever, born on this day in 1912, had amassed twenty-eight notebooks by the time he died, in 1982; he wrote the extracts below between 1974 and 1978. “These were workbooks, a place to take notes, to practice and to fume,” Cheever’s son, Benjamin, says in his introduction. “Please remember that this is just one piece of the man. An interesting piece, I think: diverting, instructive, candid, and intimate. But not the whole guy.”
The telephone rings at four. This is CBS. John Updike has been in a fatal automobile accident. Do you care to comment. I am crying. I cannot sleep again. I think of joining Mary in bed but I am afraid she will send me away. I think I am right. When there is a little light I feed the dogs. I hope they don’t expect to be fed this early every morning, she says. I do not point out that John will not die every morning and that in any case it is I who feeds them. The restraint costs me nothing. When I go into the kitchen for another cup of coffee she empties the pot into my cup and says: I was just about to have some myself. When I insist on sharing the coffee I am unsuccessful. I do not say that the pain of death is nothing compared to the pain of sharing a coffee pot with a peevish woman. This costs me nothing. And I see that what she seeks, much more than a cup of coffee—is to gratify a sense of denial and neglect—and that we so often, all of us, put our cranky and our emotional demands so far ahead of our hunger and thirst.
As for John he was a man I so esteemed as a colleague and so loved as a friend that his loss is indescribable. He was a prince. I think it not difficult to kiss him goodbye—I can think of no other way of parting from him although he would, in my case, have been embarrassed. As a writer of his generation I think him peerless; and his gifts of communicating, to millions of strangers, his most exalted and desperate emotions was, in his case, fortified by immense and uncommon intelligence and erudition. John, quite alone in the field of aesthetics, remained shrewd. Mercifully there is no consolation in thinking that his extraordinary brilliance prophesied a cruel, untimely and unnatural death. His common sense would have dismissed this as repulsive and vulgar. One misses his brightness—one misses it painfully but one remembers that his life was dedicated to the description of enduring—and I definitely do not mean immortal—to enduring strains of sensuality and spiritual revelation.
So the call about John’s untimely death was a fraud. I have decided, says my daughter, that it was an overambitious stringer who saw the name on a police blotter and tried to cash in.
My lower intestine is dubious, but I feel much better. I go to Caldor to autograph books and think this morning that I feel better. The people are truly pleasant and I am reminded of the encyclopedia salesman in Saratoga. I sit at my table with my ashtray and my four felt pens and the strangers approach me shyly. The music has been discontinued and a voice announces that John Cheever, the famous best-seller is in the book department. I play the same role as those people who advertise hair-straighteners and magic silver polish. The customers and I are utter strangers. We smile wildly at one another and they ask if I think they will like the book. I say that I can’t answer that but that it has been well-liked in this country as well as in Europe. We laugh. We blush. I sign a book. Here is that experience of intimacy I try so hard to explain. We are, in short, not alone. We are spiritually miles from the priest with his ciborium but the ritual is similar. The customer and I both hope he will enjoy what he has purchased. The air is cleared; we are both on our way. Their shyness is inestimable. “I only want to be esteemed,” a woman asks me to write in a book. There is a shy young man with chin whiskers who can’t look at me. When I ask his name he can’t reply. He hangs at the edge of the crowd and every so often he buys another book. He buys four. The store closes down at nine and we go off to Chuck’s Steak House where everyone drinks double vodka martinis but me. The manager recites an Elizabethan sonnet he has written about Jewish tailors. This is very serious. A very pleasant young man drives me back to the parking lot. I piss in the parking lot and drive home.