My father died almost 30 years ago, and I miss him every day. He was just 70, and his first grandchild, my daughter, was only two months old. His death was a medical mistake; a doctor who operated on his kidney found a malignancy and didn’t tell anyone, and six months later when my father couldn’t walk, it turned out the cancer had gone to his bones. Reading Cheever: A Life (Knopf), Blake Bailey’s marvelous biography of my father published this month, is a strange, exhilarating and painful experience. Seeing your own story in someone else’s book is always disorienting; it’s like suddenly noticing at a party that someone else is wearing your favorite red dress and that, worse luck, she looks better in it than you do.
Yes, my father was a difficult, alcoholic, closeted gay man who was sometimes mean to his family. What seems to have been lost with time is his extraordinary humor.
Blake interviewed me many times over the years during which he wrote, and my brothers, mother, and I are all quoted often and accurately in his pages. When we spoke, I often hectored him about the necessity of separating my father’s art and my father’s life. I am not the little girl in The Sorrows of Gin; my father is not the troubled man in The Angel of the Bridge. No conflation, I would insist, although indeed both stories and many others are based on things that actually happened.