This morning I was reading a New York Times review of Cheever: A Life, Blake Bailey’s new biography of John Cheever, and I was reminded of the recent passing of John Updike. For me, it is nearly impossible to think of one of these writers without thinking about the other. Both were suburban middle-class males who chronicled the postwar rise of the middle-class that increased not only in numbers but in affluence, but from starkly different points of view. Just like “Beatles or Stones?” or “Ginger or Mary Ann?” you can enjoy them both, but you end up favoring one over the other. While Updike was The Beatles and Mary Ann, Cheever was the Stones and Ginger.
It’s interesting how both writers took what was essentially the same material and how differently they used it. Both writers pierced through the facade of middleclass contentment to show the underlying anomie of our society. But that’s where the similarity ends.
I remember reading Updike’s Couples for the first time and almost immediately recognizing my parents in his characters, so much so that I started trying to figure out who among Methodist Church’s Couples Club were Mom and Dad screwing. The trials and tribulations of marriages and middle-class family life was Updike’s landscape in almost all of his exquisite short stories and in those novels for which he will be remembered. As for infidelity, I think Couples was a bit over the top and he did better in his more intimate Marry Me: A Romance. His nearly career spanning series of short stories chronicling the Maples, collected in Too Far to Go, watches a young couple married in the late fifties, raise children, navigate the tumultuous sixties, and finally break up in the seventies. Along the way we see the couple gradually grow apart, tentatively cheat on one another, engage in full-grown adultery, and finally reconcile everything by divorcing. At each point in time, whatever they are doing seems like the right thing to do.
When Updike cracked through the facade, what he found and what he revealed to us was human frailty, and he portrayed it gently and with a tenderness that no matter how exasperated we were with his characters, we still could also have affection for them. I think this has much to do with Updike himself and how he lived his life. The Maple’s marriage seems to have lasted about as long as Updike’s first marriage. I don’t want to insinuate that the Maple’s stories are a thinly disguised autobiography. I don’t believe they are, but I’m sure that his life and that of his neighbors in Ipswich certainly informed the emotional journeys of his characters. His suburban landscape was colored by his own fairly gentle and contented life and his continued belief that inner peace was possible, whether it be found in taking the kids to the beach in the summer, having an adulterous affair, or maintaining an active commitment to his Protestant faith.
Cheever, on the other hand, cracked through the facade and found darkness. One only has to read his short story, “The Enormous Radio” to see the darkness. In that story, a young couple buys a radio for their apartment. The wife discovers that the radio can pick up the conversations of all their neighbors, and listens day after day to the dark secrets of the people in their apartment building. It’s ugly, it’s prurient, it’s shameful. It’s not good for our young couple either.
After Cheever died, his daughter’s memoir, Home Before Dark, revealed that Cheever had lived a very haunted life. An alcoholic, and also bisexual, he inflicted much pain on his family through emotional abuse. This completes the contrast between Cheever and Updike that shows up in their work. Where Updike’s white middle-class men are befuddled by life and by aging, Cheever’s become angry and violent.
The beautiful part of art is that we can look at these two very different renderings of the same landscape and see the truth in both of them.
As for me, although I dated a few Gingers, I married a Mary Ann. And while I listen to the Beatles more than the Stones, at middle-aged guitar jams I can still rock out on “Brown Sugar.”
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