I picked up Susan Cheever’s book, Home Before Dark, years ago because the title intrigued me. A title should be “tough,” as one English professor told me in my college days, and Cheever’s title is certainly that.
The book languished on my shelves with many others I have bought over the years, intending to read when I can “find the time.” Then one day I realized that I could run out of time before I crack open many of these books.
What motivated me to pick up this book over the others I’ve collected was the desire to study the format of a good memoir. Susan Cheever’s book is a memoir of her father, highly esteemed author John Cheever, whose award winning books included The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal and Falconer, as well as hundreds of short stories to his credit.
What makes this memoir excellent is Ms. Cheever’s writing style. Instead of the typical biography that begins at birth and ends at death, she skips back and forth over time, with tales of her father’s childhood, early days in his marriage, her own childhood, his struggles and finally his death, all entwined and overlapping. One paragraph may be about his death or his alcoholism, and the next is about an earlier event in his life. Susan Cheever zips to and fro in her retelling that is neither confusing nor overly sentimental.
For her research, Ms. Cheever relied on childhood memories, conversations with those who knew her father, and access to John Cheever’s journals and letters. The end result is a deeply personal memoir about how a writer’s painful childhood and addictive demons can creatively be parlayed into stories. The reader is privy to John Cheever’s greatest fears and innermost thoughts and desires, but is never left feeling voyeuristic. What emerges is a complicated man who is driven to explore the process of writing and how that process relates to living.
Perhaps what makes this biographical memoir most memorable is that although John Cheever made a living for many years through his highly acclaimed short stories, he didn’t write or publish his first novel until he was in his late forties. His struggles with money, fame, alcohol, sexual orientation, monogamy and finally, cancer will leave many writers who plan to write “that book” but haven’t, encouraged and confident that great writing and professional recognition can be achieved at any age, provided one stays the course and eventually gets the words down on paper.