: Books: Cheever / Barthelme: Ovid of Ossining, Meet Hiding Man from Texas :

an excerpt by Anis Shivani

John Cheever (1912-1982) came from a Boston South Shore family of good name fallen on hard times, was expelled from high school (and published a story about it in The New Republic at eighteen), remained married to the same woman for forty years while struggling with his homosexual urges, wrote dark stories about suburban life while physically embodying its spirit, and conquered alcoholism late in life, going out in a blaze of recognition. Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) came from a privileged Texan background (his father was an influential architect in Houston), made the most of his hometown journalism stints to launch his mature art, married four times while personifying the über-heterosexual, exemplified vitality as he helped found the University of Houston's creative writing program, and yet never overcame alcoholism, dying of cancer at fifty-eight with his critical reputation at a low point.  Cheever was always running from his origins, inventing an aristocratic self early on, and never feeling comfortable with his father, mother, and older brother. Barthelme had little trouble replenishing from his origins, despite his greatest productivity coinciding with his New York sojourn. Cheever obsessively kept a journal, amounting to several million words, the source of information about his homosexual impulses. Barthelme, despite being a diligent literary activist, comes across as inscrutable, leaving a permanent mystery about why his marriages dissolved, what he felt about countercultural New York, or how he assessed his own writing. Each, now, has earned the biographer he would most have enjoyed sparring with. Both biographers have sharpened the unique aspects of their subjects' personalities to the point of unavoidable centrality.