I was jousting with computer problems while others were reviewing Blake Bailey’s new biography of one of my favorite writers, John Cheever, and I may not have time to backtrack to the book. But of the reviews I’ve read, the most convincing came from Jonathan Yardley, the Pulitzer Prize–winning critic for the Washington Post, and not just because Yardley has shown repeatedly that among critics working for major American newspapers, he is the least likely to buy into hype. Yardley has also been writing about Cheever for decades – much longer than others who’ve weighed in – and by my lights spoke from a position of greater authority.
His March 15 review begins:
“Two decades ago, reviewing Scott Donaldson’s John Cheever: A Biography for The Post, I commented favorably on the author’s ‘careful and honorable job’ but complained that, at 416 pages of text and apparatus, the book told us far more than we needed to know about Cheever’s life. What, then, is to be said of Blake Bailey’s Cheever? It weighs in at a stupefying 679 pages of text plus 89 pages of acknowledgments, notes and index, 770 pages in all, making for a vast inert pudding of a book that leaves the reader with a severe case of indigestion.
“Who knows what Cheever would have thought of this? On the one hand, he was a vain man for whom even the most lavish praise was insufficient, so perhaps it would have pleased him that he rates so bloated a text. On the other hand, the best of his own writing was done in short stories, and the best of those are notable for their economy and precision. Surely he would be astonished to see himself inflated into yet another biographical Gargantua, not to mention in a book that feeds rapaciously on his most unattractive if not repellent aspects: his obsessive, divided sexuality, his spectacular alcoholism, his failures as husband and father.
“Cheever was a wonderful writer — the Library of America has just given him his due with two volumes — but not, it seems, a very nice man …”