Picks and Pans Review: Home Before Dark
by Susan Cheever
When writer John Cheever died two years ago at age 70, he left behind 30 volumes of journals. His daughter, Susan, a writer who has had three novels published, combined memories, research and material from those journals to produce an intriguing, powerful biography. She came to understand that her father "at some level...was always the home-less boy, the outsider, the one who stood at the edge of 'respectable' life looking critically but wistfully in at his friends and neighbors." She remembers that her father "never spoke about feelings or allowed himself to speculate on the inner mechanics of the family. 'I love you all equally,' he would say." For many years his short stories appeared in The New Yorker, but he was barely able to support his wife and three children. When success came in 1957 with the publication of his first novel, the autobiographical The Wapshot Chronicle, he had already begun to have a drinking problem that later turned into chronic alcoholism. Eventually he won almost every honor that America gives its important writers, yet he could not enjoy his fame: "I was raised to believe that the acceptance of any honor was improper," he wrote a friend. "As a child I used to wake in the night crying: No thank you, Oh no thank you." Although he remained married all his life to one woman, and she was there to nurse him at the end, Cheever had affairs with many women and men. He was never reconciled to his homosexuality, and he wanted, at all cost, never to be found out. His daughter's vision of his failings—he seems pompous and vain at times—is remarkably clear-eyed, but she never wavers in her love. (Houghton Mifflin, $15.95)
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