john cheever: “he’d destroy everything just so he could get a drink, just so he could get blown”

. . . Cheever was forever on at Susan about her weight; he wanted a pretty slip of a daughter, and thought her too greedy. But perhaps Ben had it worse. Cheever would complain in his journal that his elder son was effeminate, and to his face would tell him: "Speak like a man!" and "You laugh like a woman!" There was a time, Ben tells me, when he began to wonder whether he was, in fact, gay, and only acting heterosexual to please his father. Just to cap it all, it was to Ben that his father came out two weeks before his death, in a telephone call to Ben’s then office at Reader’s Digest. "What I wanted to tell you," he said, bluntly, "is that your father has had his cock sucked by quite a few disreputable characters…"

Does this mean that Ben hadn’t, until that moment, realised what Max was to his father? "No, I hadn’t. In fact, I remember Maxflirting with me a little, and I was shocked; I thought Daddy would be horrified if he knew Max was a homosexual. But I think actual knowledge follows intellectual knowledge. My father told me that, but I didn’t really… realise it until some time afterwards. It was upsetting but it wasn’t as upsetting as being screamed at when you’re a little boy for being effeminate. I’ve had to [over the years] reorganise a lot, and to some extent I’m still involved in that process. But this [the biography] is a story I can live with. Daddy has redeeming values. He was so funny."

Has it been hard, being Benjamin Cheever? "Yes and no. I was interested in being a writer, and I didn’t like people telling me that they would have expected something better from John Cheever’s son. That was tough. My first novel got turned down by lots of people, and no one could believe that. I’m sure there are lots of people who feel, with some confidence, that they would be a lot better a writer than me if they had my name. Everybody has a father; everybody has a psychic load. But I’m also lucky. In my attempts to figure him out, I have all these documents, and they’re pretty well written, too. You’re exactly right, though, to think that I had my ups and downs with him, even after he died. Sometimes I’d think: boy, he was a hero! He overcame all these terrible things. But then, other times, I’d think: boy, what a prick! He’d destroy everything just so he could get a drink, just so he could get blown.

—from Rachel Cooke, “The demons that drove John Cheever,” The Observer, October 18, 2009

 

 

 

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