In August 1991, I read John Cheever’s journal excerpts published in The New Yorker. I was a 19-year-old college dropout, a waitress, and in the half hour before starting my shift, I sat outside my local library, electrified by this candid, sordid, gorgeous prose. Wow! What a messy man — his entries, which begin in the 1940s and span through the ’60s, suggest he was, among other things, an adulterer, an alcoholic, a closeted homosexual. But hey, I’m messy too! Furthermore, from the straw of his mundane routines, his foibles, his fantasies, Cheever spun sentences shot through with gold. Whatever his day gave him, or whatever he gave his day — unreasonable or reasonable — he transubstantiated through the telling.
Although his workbooks weren’t written for publication, Cheever nonetheless gave permission for them to be published posthumously. Hence, “The Journals of John Cheever” debuted as a book in 1991, kicking off with: “In middle age there is mystery, there is mystification.” And how.
Throughout, Cheever is an investigative reporter of his own psyche. Can we trace the subsequent flood of unflinching memoirs back to his act of daring greatly on a page? In another entry written a decade after the sentence above, Cheever notes, “But what interests me is the contradictions in my nature, anyone’s nature, their grandiosity; that in the space of a few minutes I experience crushing shame and then swim into some pure source of self esteem and confidence that wells up like a spring in a pond.”