28 June, 2010Issue 12.5LiteratureWriters

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Second Acts in American Lives

Peter Snow


“There are no second acts in American life”, Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: surely one of the most asinine statements on record. For if America is about anything it is about repeated acts of personal re-invention. None exemplify this more than John Cheever and Raymond Carver; each of whom, in and through their troubled and ultimately triumphant lives, bore a body of work sorely underappreciated in our own time.

At first sight Cheever and Carver could not seem more different: Carver, a shambling bear of a man from the saw-mill towns of the Northwest who struggled all his life to break into the Eastern literary establishment; Cheever the neat scion of a New England family, sleek laureate of the swimming pool-plotted suburbs of Connecticut and denizen in what John Updike called “the delicious glossy space” of the New Yorker.

Look deeper, though, and a similar, very American pattern emerges. Casualties of their parents’ pursuit of the American Dream, both Carver and Cheever started out as rootless misfits driven by dreams of making it, not just in literary but material terms; both were what Saul Bellow called “self-transformers” who improvised their lives, restlessly reaching out for fame, money, and a new sense of connection and community.

“A real mama’s boy” as one acquaintance described him, scruffy and dingy, unhandy and unlucky, Raymond Carver appeared the archetypical underdog. But there was always something detached and divided about him: he was both victim and observer of his own defeats. Throughout his life he spoke about there being “two Rays”, and Sklenicka captures well his inherent “doubleness”. And it perhaps served him well in his ambition, formed early on out of nowhere, to be a writer. People often described his life as a battle and Carver as the war correspondent who reported it. “He could not take care of himself. That’s how he survived”, a friend once said. Carver’s chief carer turned out to be a clever, competent small-town girl called Maryann, whom he married and who worked selflessly for years to support his literary ambitions. “Partners in the getaway”, Raymond and Maryann, like many before and since, headed for California to build a new life.

The dream did not come easy. Life became—between the odd grant and scholarship—a round of dead-end jobs, endless treks between anonymous apartments in beat-up cars, kids squalling on the back-seat, and Maryann waitressing at every truck-stop to keep them on the road. Children came all too soon but not the money or the inclination to nurture them. Drink provided a solution—and then the problem. Carver drank in part to soften the edges of a hard life, in part simply to deaden his sensitivities. He descended into a spiral of alcohol, violence, and guilt, followed by more alcohol. Like his parents’, Carver’s marriage eventually did not so much break up as unravel. The family, said his daughter, simply “disbanded”.

If Carver came from the margins of American society, Cheever claimed connections with its historic roots. “Always remember you are a Cheevah“, Cheever’s father told him, and throughout his life he delighted in tracing his lineage back through various New England luminaries. In reality Cheever’s origins were nowhere near as grand as he made out. His father was a shoe salesman, who fell early victim to the Depression. Personal disintegration and marital discord followed, with Cheever at one point summoned to an amusement park in order to talk his father down from the top of the roller-coaster from which he was noisily threatening to throw himself.

Distancing himself from the family wreckage, Cheever drifted, living for a time in a New York hovel so wretched that the famous Depression-era photographer Walker Evans used it as an icon of urban squalor. Saved by a talent for turning out short stories, especially the slight, smart social vignettes that appealed to the recently launched New Yorker, Cheever successfully put together a new life, adopting a strange, strangulated British-Bostonian accent, toughening his physique by a regime of sport, swimming, and chopping logs, and eventually marrying into the wealthy Whitney family and to all appearances becoming the model husband and father. But under the surface of the successful suburban paterfamilias, all was not well. “I came from nowhere and I don’t know where I’m going”, he wrote in his private journal. But for Cheever the grimmest skeleton in his Connecticut closet was what he termed his “sexual iridescence”—his bisexuality.

Always a heavy social drinker, Cheever, like Carver, joined that heroic American band of literary drinkers and substance abusers that stretches from Mailer back through Fitzgerald and London as far as Poe. Other countries have their boozing authors but there is something epic about American literary drunks. It is as if the land’s sheer scale and the mismatch between the overarching ambitions of its writers and their social marginality creates an emptiness and terror that can only be assuaged by Ahab-like voyages on the deepest seas of drink.

Then, astonishingly and against all odds, both men embarked on final journeys of reinvention. Cheever took his last drink in 1975, Carver two years later. “All I ever wanted”, Cheever had earlier written, “was to be rich, famous and loved”, and he at last got his wishes. Despite crippling attacks of depersonalisation from his years of drinking, he finished his masterpiece, Falconer, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1979. Finally honestly confronting his sexuality, he reached out, with some belated success, to his family, and became until his death in 1982 a much respected figure on the literary scene.

Carver, too, achieved at last the stability for which he had always yearned, after settling down with a new partner, the poet Tess Gallagher. “Now for the other life”, he wrote, “the one without mistakes.” Thanks to film script sales and a munificent Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters he was able to enjoy the material fruits of success, including a Mercedes, a yacht, and a big house in the country—in all of which he took enormous childish pride. More importantly, it was during this period that he wrote the bulk of his work, seeing several important collections emerge into print before his death in 1988.

The overriding theme of Carver’s stories is isolation—but an isolation shot through with unexpected, epiphanic moments of connection and inter-subjectivity. The second acts captured in his stories are brief, compressed moments of communion. There is no Whitmanesque embraced multitude, no Beat-like cosmic orgasm. Think, rather, of the sudden flare of a Zippo lighter illuminating two faces over a shared cigarette in a deserted bar or on a cold park bench. In their lonely desolation Carver’s stories are the literary equivalents of Edward Hopper’s famous picture, Night Hawks.

If Carver has been variously described—with only partial accuracy—as a minimalist or “a dirty realist”, Cheever was pigeon-holed as the New Yorker’s in-house chronicler of the American suburbs. But, as Updike wrote after Cheever’s death: “He was often labelled a writer about suburbia; but many people have written about suburbia, and only Cheever was able to make an archetypal place out of it, a terrain we can recognise within ourselves, wherever we are or have been.”

At their best Cheever’s stories provide, in Updike’s words, “a lesson in the dark gulf between outward appearance and inward condition”. Cheever—a man who repeatedly said “I can’t connect my life”—found in the suburbs and in his stories of “untidy lives lived in tidy households”—a mirror for his own conflicts. Himself the supreme self improviser, Cheever described the affluent 1950s suburbs as “an improvised way of life” with their formal-informal round of poolside rituals, private infidelities, neurotic insecurities, and constant, uncertain jockeying for status—a territory, incidentally, which has been more recently evoked in the current TV hit series Mad Men, which traces the conflicted lives of Madison Avenue admen in the early 1960s.

When Cheever died in 1982 he was at the height of his fame, widely read and loaded with honours. Since then the reputations of the two writers have, if anything, see-sawed in respect of one another. Few read Cheever today, and his stories command little academic attention; Carver’s critical standing has grown but still remains modest. Neither writer, it might be added, has ever had a significant impact in the United Kingdom. Let us hope that their legacies, like their lives, will in time enjoy their own triumphant—and deserved—second act.

Peter Snow read English at University College, Oxford and is currently a freelance writer living in Oxford.