Susan Cheever: a drinker's memoir

January 10, 1999|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

"Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker," by Susan Cheever. Simon & Schuster. 192 pages. $23.

Susan Cheever has written another affecting memoir of autobiographical speculation. This time she focuses on how alcoholism ruled her life for close to 50 years. Her father, short story writer John Cheever, was famously alcoholic and Cheever reveals how the landscape of her early life was colored by drinking. When she was 6, her Cheever grandmother taught her "how to make a perfect dry martini." Drinking, Cheever writes, was "as ordinary a part of life, as eating or even breathing."

As befitting an honest memoir, separating her book from those by Frank McCourt ("Angela's Ashes") and Mary Karr ("The Liars Club"), Cheever does not make up dialogue or over-dramatize or melodramatically add high moments where there were none. "Note Found in a Bottle" tells its story modestly and simply.

Throughout her life, Cheever drinks. She drinks her way through the Civil Rights movement; she is drunk at her first wedding. A pattern silently emerges. Consistently self-destructive decisions are made while she is under a buzzing influence.

John Cheever, subject of his daughter's best known memoir, "Home Before Dark," lingers in the background, a snob and social opportunist, an alcohol enabler when he is not supplying his daughter with second-hand automobiles. Even when Cheever pere is sober and in Alcoholics Anonymous, he orders white wine for his daughter at lunch.

Chapters are short, fragmentary and astringent. As an accomplished memoirist, Cheever perceives exactly when to insert a flash forward to move her story along. Increasingly she moves in to assess her experiences, as a memoirist must, but a novelist cannot. So she concludes that she "had three amazing marriages to three exceptional men." The last was the notorious San Francisco character Warren Hinckle, once editor of Ramparts magazine. "All three taught me to write," she divulges.

Memoirs are about consequences, cause and effect. Cheever acknowledges that her drinking led to "a slow deterioration of my sanity, my judgment, and the odd way that so much of what I did added up to nothing." Her first baby is born with a propensity to disease, the result of Cheever's drinking during her pregnancy. Worst is her moral intransigence as she travels to Cuba with Hinckle although her daughter is ill with chicken pox.

The memoirist is obliged to tell the story of the era that shaped her. Cheever chronicles the transitional moment for women between the '50s and the '60s and '70s that challenged the strictures of the past. "By getting married," Cheever admits, "I believed I had earned the right to never have to work again."

By the end Susan Cheever is a woman alone, independent and self-sufficient. Made whole by love of her children, she remains in search of the standards she received neither from the parent who ran around having affairs "and drinking himself to death," nor from the other who "hardly ever came downstairs."

"Desperate to connect with something," she finds God. "I know there is a God," she asserts, although there has been no scene of spiritual enlightenment. The best moments in this fine piece of writing are those drawn from Cheever's troubled childhood, not least, this: "Pretending that things are not as they seem -- that you don't see what you do see, that you don't hear what you do hear -- makes children crazy."

Joan Mellen, is the author of 12 books including "Hellman and Hammett." She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Pub Date: 01/10/99

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