There is something feckless about a writer’s journals. They are a specialist’s document, and those who parse their pages are like grooming baboons, searching for fleas. Expecting bohemian excess or stoic grace, we discover instead a life reduced to the fungible poetry of soiled clothes and closely mown grass. A writer’s journal is “neither life exactly, nor fiction,” Elizabeth Hardwick suggested, “but like one of those dreams in which dead friends, with their old crumpled smiles and grunts, their themes, meet you turning a corner.”
The themes of John Cheever’s journals—God, sex, guilt, and nature—manage to instill genteel ennui with the anguished moral passion of a Russian novel. Published in 1990, eight years after his death from lung cancer, and decades after he had been enshrined as America’s premiere bourgeois fabulist, the journals shocked in their revelation of the self-lacerating, booze-addled voluptuary hiding in the fine suit of a country squire. “Rarely has a gifted and creative life seemed sadder,” a chastened John Updike wrote upon their publication. But though the gap between Cheever the cultural effigy and Cheever the man was received with surprise and consternation, the ambiguity of his work had always betrayed such a fissure. Cheever’s greatest fiction enacts a kind of doubleness, a yearning for grace darkly marbled with lust and duplicity. The rapturous moments—one thinks of the beautiful early story “Goodbye, My Brother,” with its darkness and iridescence, the naked women walking out of the sea—barely conceal the saturnine streaks. Beneath his character’s charm and taste is a stratum of secret pain, a longing that is somehow shameful. They expect more from life, and this expectation leads them into bafflement and transgression. This is authentic sin, half created, half siphoned from the brackish estuary of Cheever’s soul. The pulse of his magnificent storytelling can be found, vast and inchoate, in the pages of his journals.
Cheever couches his spiritual odyssey in the mundane torment of his domestic life, a kind of Strindbergian drama set in the deep lawns and blue afternoons of Ossining. “In church the Epistle is majestic but my mind wanders,” he writes in a 1959 entry. “Now a clearing wind has sprung out of the Northwest. I will think about Hell and the family.” His difficult marriage possessed an elliptical structure: His desire for physical intimacy, her rejection of that desire, his consolation in alcohol and hers in bitter recriminations. Particular anecdotes pierce with the pain of specificity: “Vodka for breakfast. Mary mentions her mother for the third time in thirty-five years. ‘I wanted a teddy bear for Christmas, and she said I was too old. She pronounced ‘doll’ with the same terribly Massachusetts accent you have.’ So we are people we have never met.”
Cheever’s homosexual inclinations—he lived furtively as a bisexual man for most of his married life—are seized upon as compensatory pleasures, remuneration for a passionless marriage. The journals are peppered with instances of unrequited crushes, fantasies of conquest, unconsummated cruising, the erotic possibility of the bathroom stall. In one emblematic scene, Cheever happens upon a pair of men exposing themselves to one another in a Grand Central restroom. “Here is a means of upsetting the applecart in an intimacy, a word,” he wrote of the experience. “One could, with a touch, break the laws of the city and the natural world, expose the useless burdens of guilt and remorse, and make some claim for man’s wayward and cataclysmic nature.” Mere proximity to forbidden encounter unleashes in Cheever an almost apocalyptic excitement. Reading his words, one can nearly feel his hand shaking as he wrote them.
The registers vary, though, depending on his mood, the state of his finances, and his relative intake of gin. He could sometimes transmute his carnal desperation into fine comic material (Cheever is, I think, an underrated comic writer): “Revolting, elderly, alcoholic novelist desires meaningful relationship with 24-year-old aristocratic North Carolinian with supple form and baroque biceps,” goes his imaginary classified in New York Review of Books. “Little gay experience but ready learner.” More often, the tone is one of anguished longing for tenderness, for touch. “Walking in the woods, I would like to see him; someone like him. In short, I am lascivious. This is inflamed by drink and catnaps. The dogwood petals are falling, and the flowers from the tulip tree. Highly sexual.” Cheever is not, as Philip Roth called him, an “enchanted realist,” but rather an erotic elegist, a man for whom repressed desire is a poetic engine.
Cheever’s quality of un-fixed-ness is a large part of his appeal. His personas are multivalent, compelling, almost always incomplete. If, in public, he played the waspy New England paterfamilias with starchy aplomb—“Remember, son, you are a Cheever,” he would tell his son, Federico—his more natural state was that of the Episcopalian sensualist, a libertine for whom sexual appetite had attained a spiritual intensity: “But if my hands tremble with desire they tremble likewise when I reach for the chalice on Sunday, and if lust makes me run and caper it is no stronger a force than that which brings me to my knees to say thanksgivings and litanies.” Cheeverian lewdness—“raised petticoats in kitchens and backstairs and long afternoons in bed when the sheets smell like the lagoons of Venice”—is capricious and tormented, plangent, unworthy. It is also, in its vigorous, ruddy music, a blessing only dimly apprehended by the writer himself.
Cheever is a member of that rare group—Witold Gombrowicz, Anaïs Nin, perhaps Franz Kafka—whose private diaries comprise their finest writing. The route to Cheever’s journals is almost always a circuitous one – first one reads his exquisite stories, some of the finest ever written, followed by his largely disappointing novels, his voluminous correspondence, the memoir by his daughter Susan. One comes to the journals, then, ready for something safe and genial and above all expected, the improvisations of a suburban mystic. How thrilling to discover instead this offhand, extemporizing masterpiece, a storehouse of incomparable lyricism—no one writes light or water or fire better than Cheever—commingled with the greatest index of shame in American letters.
Pastoral beauty is a kind of pumice in the journals, a means of abrading indiscretion and vulgarity. Cheever’s is an autumnal world, all burning leaves and dying roses, rain-wet stones, house lights, “beards of gold-green weed.” Leaving aside the complexity of his sexual negotiations, the journals would still be a masterclass of the form. Exquisite, vaulting, incongruous sentences leap from the page, too numerous to quote properly. Settings are expertly established, lushly laconic: “At the pond, the incandescence of the sea light. Wild roses and knife grass beautifully exposed.” The end of day is recounted, again and again, as a vivid ritual: “The sun going down takes many forms; gold, brass cauldrons, streaks of lemon yellow and then, unexpectedly, a field of rose.” A pond is a “rippled scarf of light.” Like Emerson before him, the natural world is morally restorative for Cheever, its beauty is one of the scant salvations he was afforded. His appreciations aspire to psalms: “The poignant blue, the line of darkness rising like a lid; the perfect cleanness of line and color that means that a northwest wind has scoured the overcast and blown it out to sea.”
Cheever was a natural miniaturist, a collector of set pieces. His narratives were crowded with individual, freewheeling episodes and improbable details. What made his novels unsatisfying (barring the late-career majesty of Falconer)—the prioritization of anecdote at the expense of coherence—is precisely what makes the journals immortal. Each entry is perfectly sized, strangely lambent, its effect concentrated and distilled. One is astounded by the lightness of his touch, his piquant or affecting details that bathe an observation in grace. “The storm moves around to the east and finally strikes the valley. The air is aromatic the instant the rain falls. Ben cuts a paper airplane for his little brother. The old dog will not leave my side.” The economy of such sentences belies their emotional weight and inexplicable familiarity. There is no better conjuror of this particular atmosphere: the happy-sad, window-dreaming melancholy of late afternoon. Even his non sequiturs strike with curious potency, the images alluring and abrupt. A personal favorite: “I dream that my face appears on a postage stamp.” This is the entire entry. It could be the first line of a Cheever story—and, in a way, it is.
Unlike the Cheeverian short story, with its often quizzical and transfixing ending—“Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains”—the journal’s final entries are largely muted sketches of exhaustion: “I must, this morning, call the broker, order stationary, and have my watch fixed. I will now lie down.” Still, at the end of a life creased with disappointment, loneliness, and confusion, in the throes of mortal illness, one finds this coda, like a bell ringing out: “Literature has been the salvation of the damned; literature, literature has inspired and guided lovers, routed despair, and can perhaps, in this case, save the world.”
Dustin Illingworth is a writer in Southern California. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Times.