A second-generation literary light burns in Benjamin Cheever

January 28, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

Novelist Benjamin Cheever comes to the word processor with a heritage that could cause major writer's block: a lifetime as the son of the late, Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Cheever.

As if that were not daunting enough, Mr. Cheever, 45, spent a lot of the past decade contemplating John Cheever's life -- and his relationship to it -- as he edited a collection of his father's personal letters.

The Cheever family's decision to publish these letters, as well as John Cheever's journals, was a bold act that some observers called brave and others called exploitative. Even as the books revealed the details of the artist's pursuit of his career, they also showed him to be a tortured man who struggled with alcoholism and bisexuality, who had extramarital affairs and who privately lived the kind of life he denounced in public.

Benjamin Cheever's preoccupation with his father has diminished as he's explored his past through his own fiction.

Both "The Plagiarist," published in 1992, and the just released "The Partisan" introduce characters reminiscent of John Cheever. Their plots concern things literary. Family life is rarely a haven. The air is heavy with the wry understatements of those who nurse eccentricity and expect disappointment.

Says Mr. Cheever, "For me, [my writing] is an attempt to make sense out of things. . . . I think writing novels can be a wonderfully useful thing to do for yourself. The father figure who is godlike in my first book, for instance, is human in my second book -- and probably won't exist in my third."

" 'The Partisan' takes on certain themes and it has a novelistic ambiguity," says Lee Goerner, Mr. Cheever's editor at Atheneum publishers. "Things are not fixed in place in this book; you don't always know what to expect."

Written from the point of view of film student Nelson Ballard, "The Partisan" is about life at home during the summer when his guardian, Jonas Collingwood, author of 18 "spectacularly gloomy novels," writes the non-fiction book which is expected to finally bring him fortune and public acclaim. There are moments when Nelson Ballard longs to escape a world that seems to value only artistic achievements, to become "a useful nameless drudge," says Nelson. "With a wife I love and children."

Ben Cheever spent a lot of time wondering if he could or should escape his literary heritage.

"I thought my father had been forced to make the decision to be a writer by his talent -- and that I lacked talent so that I could escape it," he says. "Then I used to think that doubt [about writing] was a signpost, that if you had enough doubt or despair, it meant 'Don't go that way.' "

When he worked on the book of his father's letters, though, he learned that John Cheever -- who was 45 when his first novel was published -- often heard that he had no talent. And that he often despaired of his ability.

"I discovered that the decision to be a writer is not about talent. It's about making up your mind."

Married since 1982 to New York Times film critic Janet Maslin, Mr. Cheever writes at their home in Pleasantville, N.Y., where he oversees the care of their two children, John and Andrew. He begins writing every day at 5:30 a.m. and clears his head with a 45-minute run through the woods.

The second of three children -- Ben's older sister Susan Cheever is also a writer -- Mr. Cheever grew up in suburbs of New York City, went to boarding school -- the sort of place where the boys wore a jacket and tie to breakfast -- and graduated from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Along the way to becoming a novelist, he worked as an attendant at Boston State Mental Hospital, as a dishwasher, as a sports writer and as a teacher at a free school in San Francisco ("It was called The Learning Place, and nobody did"). Then he went to work as an editor for the Reader's Digest, a post he held until he left to work full-time on the book of his father's letters.

In writing "The Partisan," he says, he wanted to expose two of what he considers to be the great falsehoods of modern life: that everyone is entitled to happiness and that if, "by any mischance, a man or woman is found to be unhappy, the parents are somehow to blame."

"I think life nowadays is very, very difficult. One reason is because we're being held to foolish standards: We're all supposed to think ourselves into happiness, which is not always possible.

"There are moments of happiness. That's why . . . seeing what someone's actual life is like is helpful because our actual lives are nothing like they're supposed to be. People are a mass of contradictions."

Benjamin Cheever will read from "The Partisan" and answer questions about it at 10:15 a.m. tomorrow in the Edgar Allan Poe Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Central branch. The program is open to the public.

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