John Cheever was once called "Ovid In Ossining." What you have there are two references that may mean little or nothing to today's reading audience, and so it goes with Cheever. He seems fixed in some awkward artistic purgatory, only in Cheever's instance heaven and hell could be J.D. Salinger and John Updike. No one seems to know who Cheever is any more, or what he was talking about.
Salinger and Updike have staked out their territories quite clearly. Salinger was the voice of post-war New York and Updike trained his eye on a more fluorescent age. But they are most definitely realists. Given that Cheever is always lumped in with this small crowd, you open his books and very much expect him to be in that tradition, and he is not. He is the suburban surrealist, even though his topography appears quite real. So there is a vague notion of being disappointed when you finish a Cheever story, but only because you were told to expect the terrain to be related to Salinger and Updike. It's not, though. It's Cheever's own vision.
Salinger also did something incredible with his art. He got out of its way. Salinger the man is a void, and so his personality impinges not one whit on his art. What you are left with are the stories.
With Cheever it is the opposite. Portraits written by his children, as well as the subsequent publication of his journals, show a breathtaking difference between the man and his prose. The difference is so spectacular, and the revelations are so fascinating (even though, in some instances, this is due to their sordidness), that Cheever's writing almost strikes one as a fanciful pose, a facade. That's a problem for a writer; you always want to think that the writing came from an honest place.
I think with Cheever it did, though. The writing was scrupulously honest. He was, page by page, word by word, story by story, trying to create a world he could understand. It's like the process of the old aboriginal songlines -- Cheever was singing his world into existence.
So, today, May, 27, John Cheever would have turned 98. With the death of Salinger earlier this year, the old New Yorker triumvirate is gone. Maybe this will finally give Cheever a little breathing room.
But gone only in flesh. John Cheever's books are still happily in print. If you have a few minutes, celebrate his birthday -- if not today, on another day -- by reading some of his words. He's a writer to be cherished, and we should be happy that he lived.