Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey

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Cheever: A Life
784 pages; Knopf
Winner of the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography

Writers' reputations wax and wane, and none has swung from bottom to top and back again as often as John Cheever's. He took a long time to succeed—from the mid-'40s to the late '50s—and was a forgotten and near-dead alcoholic by the early '70s, before he rallied with two best-sellers and his face on the cover of Newsweek. He may be the finest American prose stylist of his generation (Bullet Park begins, "Paint me a small railroad station then, ten minutes before dark"). Now his reputation is about to ascend again, through the fine work of biographer Blake Bailey, whose Cheever: A Life is one of the best and most eloquent literary biographies I have ever read, and every inch the record that Cheever deserves. Bailey is loving, skeptical, even irritated at times with Cheever's more outlandish flaws; but he is scrupulous, he understands the work and its profound merit, and he is himself a superb stylist ("In the space of a few years, his father had gone from a jaunty golf-playing burgher to a sodden failure with a hacking cough who always seemed to be sitting on the porch with nothing to do"). This combination of sparkling writing and stirring subject makes the long biography almost mesmerizing and gives us remarkable access to one of the greatest writers of his time.
— Vince Passaro