Cheever Bio up for Grabs

I can't wait to read the recent biography by Blake Bailey, and not just because its subject, John Cheever, is one of my favorite writers. The book has received wildly divergent reviews, and I'm eager to see which side my opinion falls on. In Book World a few weeks ago, Jonathan Yardley called the book "messy" and accused the writer of being unable to "let go of his research" and of putting in "every detail, however trivial or squalid." In Entertainment Weekly, Tina Jordan raved about it as "quite simply, the best example of literary biography I have ever read," giving it a grade of A+. Who you gonna believe?

Ordinarily I would take Yardley's word for it: He's a veteran critic and a trusted colleague. On the other hand, I know a fair amount about Cheever. (I even have a letter from him, an answer to a query about his influences that I sent him when I was a dutiful graduate student in English; he replied that his main man was Shakespeare.) So I would like to approach the biography with an open mind and size it up for myself, and the Entertainment Weekly review gives me license to do that.

Now you may not consider Entertainment Weekly a profound arbiter of culture, and the grading system does the magazine no favors among the smart set. But its critical reviews are generally crisply written, witty, and self-confident, often reminding me of the work of that genius of the condensed review, the late Phoebe Lou Adams of the Atlantic Monthly. In fact, I hand out copies of EW reviews as examples of small-scale excellence to students in the course on book reviewing I teach. Nor is EW a pushover: I can't recall another instance during my five years of subscribing when the magazine gave an A+ to a work of art.

So I've now read two strong reviews by critics who have staked out almost polar opposite positions, putting me right where I want to be as I approach the book: in the middle, ready to see for myself.
-- Dennis Drabelle

By Denny Drabelle |  April 7, 2009; 9:00 AM ET Dennis Drabelle
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A man like Cheever, a great writer but a troubled human being, is likely to be plotted all over the graph. (That, of course, has nothing to do with how successful the new Blake Bailey biography is.) That aside, I've always been personally fascinated with the man--love his novels and especially those great suburban short stories.

When Hollywood filmed "The Swimmer," I thought the director, Frank Perry, had just the right touch, giving Cheever a bit part playing a tipsy partygoer, drink in hand. Maybe our beloved writer had a few when he sent you the prided note. I think I remember you saying once he misspelled "Shakespeare"?

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | April 7, 2009 10:52 AM

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