There were many books I admired this year, books I read and reread and recommended. Salvage the Bones is every bit as good as they say it is. And there were groundbreaking narrative nonfiction books about India: Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned, Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (out in Feb. 2012) are works of profound witness, kinship, artistic achievement, and moral necessity.
But only one book left me breathless.
I didn’t read — I succumbed – to The Journals of John Cheever. I picked it up one evening after the guests had gone, after the ashtrays had been emptied and the dog walked. I was lightly drunk and working on getting more seriously drunk (the Cheevering hour?); I idly opened the book — and let it have its way with me all weekend in the spare room.
It’s a disheveling, debauching book. Even a dangerous book: it invites you to contemplate — even embrace — your corruption. These journals, posthumously edited by Cheever’s longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb, are a 40-year chronicle of wanting health but plotting, ardently, self-destruction. Of struggling with alcoholism and bisexuality. Of wanting very much to love one’s wife and only one’s wife — but falling gratefully into the arms of any stranger who will have you. Of the soul as irredeemably “venereal, forlorn, and uprooted.”
Cheever had a brain and body so responsive — “touchy like a triggered rattrap” — everything he sees turns him on, makes him cry, turns him rhapsodic. Desire stains everything. And it isn’t airy, “Chopinesque longing,” no — it’s itchy and inconvenient, “as coarse and real as the hair on my belly,” he writes. “In the public urinal I am solicited by the man on my right. I do not dare turn my head. But I wonder what he looks like. No better or no worse, I guess than the rest of us in such throes.”
I love this Cheever, so lust-worn, fatigued, wise. The Cheever who observes, “I prayed for some degree of sexual continence, although the very nature of sexuality is incontinence.” But I love him more when he’s cross, crass, and ornery. When he’s querulous and moaning for “a more muscular vocabulary,” his face on a postage stamp, a more reliable erection. When he carps about his contemporaries (Calvino: “cute,” Nabokov: “all those sugared violets”). But Cheever the ecstatic, who merges with the mountain air and streams, who finds in writing and sex a bridge between the sacred and the profane and is as spontaneous and easy as a child — he is indispensable.
“Today gloomy and humid. I walk the dogs in a heavy rain. Water lilies grow at the edge of the pond. I want to pick some and take them home to Mary. I decide that this is foolish. I am a substantial man of fifty-eight, and I will walk past the lilies in a dignified manner. Having made this decision, I strip off my clothes, dive into the pond and pick a lily. I will be dignified tomorrow.”
The days are short and few. Stay up late with John Cheever. Contemplate your corruption with cheer. Be dignified tomorrow. Remember: “The morning light is gold as money and pours in the eastern windows. But it is the shadow that is exciting.”
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