Foolish Man Blues

(Published in *Ploughshares*, 2009)

In the summer of 1991, I was on the beach in Los Angeles.  I should have been home in New York, caring for sick friends, but I had won a grant and fled a boyfriend and I was living for a few months with two friends in Hollywood.  One afternoon we went to Santa Monica, to Will Rogers State Park – Ginger Rogers, they said, a gay beach.  The sun was hot, the surf was beating on the sand, cute guys were playing whiffle ball down by the waves.  I sat with my pals John and Randy.  John was on one side of me, reading The Gold’s Gym Guide to Nutrition, and Randy was on the other side, reading I’m Looking for Mr. Right, But I’ll Settle for Mr. Right Away, and I was in the middle, eating a mango and clutching, like an amulet against joy, a copy of The New Yorker.

As I sat there dripping mango juice down my chin, I realized suddenly that I did not have a thought in my head.  That had never happened before.  I had never not been hectored by a scolding and relentless internal monologue.  Now suddenly I was all sand and sky and boys and whiffle balls and waves, and it scared the hell out of me.  What business did I have in the gold light of the Pacific sun, thinking nothing and not despising myself?  In order to get a dose of the reality principle, and to shock my system with a jolt of New England fatalism and remorse, I opened The New Yorker and started reading an excerpt from the Journals of John Cheever.

“There is a membrane, a caul of darkness, that I think I recognize in homosexuals,” Cheever wrote, and I looked up at the bright sky and out at the sparkling sea, and I saw the flawless young men spread across the beach, and I thought, “If only!”  If only there were darkness, subtext, conflict, in this aspect of gay communion.  I like obscurity, but Cheever venerated light, he associated health and happiness with “the quality of light,” and with backyard barbecues and procreative sex, and his wife’s warm breasts filling the top of her dress as she leaned down to spear a slab of steak off the grill.  Moreover, in the daylight, he would be less likely to sneak off with a man.  Or so he hoped.  Cheever was nine years dead in 1991, and for the past year The New Yorker had been publishing excerpts from his journals, with special attention paid to his sexual self-monitoring, his lifelong, heartbreaking and tedious anxiety about his attraction to men, and his guilt about his periodic all-male trysts in public johns, Hollywood hotels, and the open woods above his suburban house in Ossining, New York.

“People who seek, who are driven to seek, love in urinals, do not deserve the best of our attention,” he wrote, lamenting others but no doubt lacerating himself.  This airing of his sexual panic and dread struck me as hypocritical on the part of The New Yorker, where Cheever had published short stories and occasional pieces from 1940 until just before he died at age seventy in 1982.  He was an alcoholic, a disease that had stricken both his father and his brother, but maybe anyone who wrote stories for The New Yorker for forty years, particularly a man who loved men, would have needed a drink.  The magazine underpaid him and it policed his content – it maintained, throughout Cheever’s career, a notoriously squeamish and WASPy reserve about sexuality and sex – and it assigned William Maxwell as Cheever’s long-term editor, a man who, after publishing a novel about idyllic boy-love in the Midwest, had undergone therapy to turn himself straight.  Cheever’s desire for men was not just – in the terms of the day – a Freudian nightmare, a threat to his marriage and his manhood, a potential legal disaster, the worm in the apple of the American way, and a risk to him in the Men’s Room at Grand Central Station.  It was also a professional and creative liability.  The New Yorker wanted him straight.

Considering how the magazine contributed to his repression, there was something icky about its publishing the man’s private confessions of worry about his sexual activity and need: his drunken leering at men he yearned to touch; the boys in tight pants whose youth and beauty gave him a hard-on while he waited for the morning train; the guy he blew while spending a few months in Hollywood writing a screenplay for Jerry Wald of 20th Century Fox and living temporarily in the Chateau Marmont, where he hooked up with a sailor in the Mitzi Gaynor suite.  Afterwards, there was always regret: “I know my troubled nature and have tried to contain it along creative lines,” he testifies, after gratifying and then fleeing the sailor.  In 1991, The New Yorker had a new editor-in-chief for the first time in forty years, and a readership that was enduring Reaganomics and AIDS – a readership, that is, with fewer illusions – but there were still plenty of people who were shocked by Cheever’s sexual history, even though his obsession with homosexuality had been on display in his fiction for decades.

It’s hard to imagine Cheever reading Queer Theory and Eve Sedgwick, but throughout his Journals he is transfixed by what Sedgwick calls a “crisis of homo/heterosexual definition,” a binary opposition that insists that if he is not straight he must be queer; that if he is straight it’s precisely because he isn’t queer; and that “queer” means one thing: men who own antique stores.  Well, his mom had run an antique store – actually, a gift shop – and Cheever had a Freud-induced anxiety about over-identifying with his mother.  His fear and loathing of what he calls “effeminate” men is permeating and toxic, though it is meant to be corrective.  Homophobia is his antibiotic, and he gulps it down.  Yet the specter of homosexuality remains ever-present in his work.  It is a specter that, in order to banish it to the margins of his art – his cheerful and despairing art, his magnificent sentences that always end in surprise, that are polished to a high finish not to mitigate pain, but to intensify it, and to ration joy – he places as an open secret at the center.

Who needs Lesbian and Gay Literature when you have American Literature, American writers?  What a gallery of panicked gender queers – “mannish acting women and skippin’ twistin’ women acting men,” to quote Bessie Smith – doing their best to hide their proclivities behind gay-baiting and self-loathing, in poems and plays and stories and novels that we all read in high school.  The year is 1960.  Cheever has published a story in the November 12th issue of The New Yorker, “Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel,” which will also be the title of Cheever’s 1961 collection, where the story is renamed “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear.”  I like the name change, because I’m drawn to simultaneity and paradox: How do you manage not to appear when the story is about you?  How are you present and absent at once?  Separated from the phrase “My Next Novel,” the story’s title would seem now to refer to a universal failure to show up.  These “Characters That Will Not Appear” won’t be anywhere, neither in my novel nor in yours.  They will be missing, not just from fiction, but from the world.

Who are these people who command our attention in order not to be there?  In the 1960 magazine version of the story, one of the “People, Places and Things” brought onto the page so that he can be withheld from the reader is a character who is a deliberate parody of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, a “crazy, shook-up sexy kid of thirteen with these phony parents.”  Holden is of course one of the most famous victims of homosexual panic in the history of the novel.  “Approach-avoidance” might be the clinical term assigned to his relationship to gay men – or as he calls them, “flits” – who appear in The Catcher in the Rye as regularly and insistently as Jesus scrambling through the peripheral vision of a bad Catholic in a story by Flannery O’Connor.  Is it an indication of Cheever’s competitive anxiety about Salinger, a far more famous New Yorker writer, that Holden is erased from the story before he ends up in the book?

That’s the first disappearance.  Without Holden, the remaining characters who will not appear, whom Cheever numbers 1 through 7, are a pretty girl who goes alone to college rugby games; “all parts for Marlon Brando”; polluted American landscapes, including “gaudy and fanciful gas stations”; pornographic sex; “all lushes”; a dying novelist who bears what must be an intentional if only partial resemblance to Cheever himself; and, “while we are about it, out go all those homosexuals who have taken such a dominating position in recent fiction.”  Clearly, not all these “characters” are people – those gas stations! – and I have reversed the order of the last two outcasts: Cheever puts homosexuals next-to-last, just ahead of the languishing novelist, whose death comes at the end of the story.  All of them are banished.  The writer hits his carriage return, ding!, and they’re gone: sluts, drunks, smut, fags, garbage, Brando, and the novelists who love them.  Oh, but have they vanished, or have they pulled up a chair to the dinner table in order to help themselves to a slice of London broil and to tell us, over and over, how in ten minutes they promise to leave?  Cheever’s homosexual is someone whose absence is advertised, guaranteed, and anticipated by his overwhelming presence.

Not just a presence, but a “dominating position.”  We can figure out what Cheever means by that two-word phrase, given his hankering for “manly men,” and his tendency in the Journals to toss out random comments like, “Waking up this morning I thought I could use a brisk fistfight.”  But what does he mean by “recent fiction?”  Cast your mind back to 1960.  What prominent gays in mainstream fiction is Cheever talking about?  Did I miss the chapter in the Great American Novel of the 1950s where a leather daddy and a gang of dykes on bikes ride into Scarsdale and commandeer the country club?  Maybe Cheever means Tennessee Williams.  But that’s drama, not fiction, and in any case, Paul Newman ends up in the arms of Elizabeth Taylor in the last scene of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Has Cheever been reading Ann Bannon?  Her Beebo Brinker novels of girl-girl love were published in 50- and 75-cent paperback editions from 1957 to 1962.  Would he have found Odd Girl Out in the Ossining Public Library?

Or was he thinking of James Baldwin?  He and Baldwin were honored together in Berkeley in 1960, where Cheever read the magazine version of “Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel.”  It’s interesting to picture Baldwin’s response to Cheever’s anti-gay rant, especially since Baldwin was about to publish Another Country, the most polymorphously perverse novel any American had written since Moby-Dick.  Did Cheever mean the Beats?  “Advocates of buggery,” he called them, maybe sniffily, maybe enviously.  What if he had met Jack Kerouac?  Both were New Englanders from Massachusetts, both had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks from the American middle class: Cheever’s dad sold shoes, and Kerouac’s father worked a printing press.  Can we picture Kerouac and Cheever, closeted bisexuals, getting drunk together and going back to Jack’s room at the Chelsea Hotel, little Joey Cheever, only 5 feet 5 inches tall, and high school running back Ti Jean, each of them insisting to the other that he isn’t queer?

Or maybe Cheever was accusing himself.  “And now we come to the unsavory or homosexual part of our tale,” he writes in 1957, near the end of his long-gestated first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle, “and any disinterested reader is encouraged to skip.”  The “homosexual part” of the book lasts barely a chapter and involves a brief flirtation between Cheever’s hero Coverly Wapshot and a gay guy named Pancras.  They have dinner, go for a walk, circle an army garrison and wander into the woods.  Nothing happens, of course, though “Coverly felt a dim rumble of homosexual lust in his trousers.”   A dim rumble?  A noisy erection?  Cheever must have worried that his secret lust could be heard as well as seen.  He was after all a paranoid citizen of the 1950s.

But we were at the beach, pages back, watching pretty boys play in the sand.  So was Cheever, at least in his imagination, when he wrote about Disappearing Character #6, “the homosexual.”  “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear” is not just a short story, it’s an essay, an experiment, a confession, an apology, a list, and one of the earliest instances of postmodern fiction to appear in The New Yorker, anticipating Donald Barthelme’s career; and it is a creation myth, steeped in the homophobia of mid-20th century acolytes of Sigmund Freud.  It explains how homosexuality happens.  Here is the Freudian case study that Cheever offers us in “A Miscellany”: The scene is not the California coast but the New England shore, and the beach isn’t gay, just private.  We’re somewhere near Boston.  A teenaged boy and his mother have taken a picnic basket to a deserted cove.  It’s the Fourth of July.  As a reminder of what’s at stake – not just manhood, but home and nation – Cheever lets us see the American flag whipping in the distance, above a clubhouse.

“The boy is sixteen, well formed, his skin the fine gold of youth, and he seems to his lonely mother so beautiful that she admires him without trepidation.”  Fierce mom!  Lovely, lonely boy neglected by a dad who is off having an affair with his secretary, and who is, moreover, Governor of the State – Cheever is enough of a snob to make sure that even his outcasts are highborn – with little time for his wife and son.  The boy would rather be with kids his own age, instead of picnicking with his mom.  But “he is timid about competitive sports, about the whole appearance of organized society, as if it concealed a force that might tear him to pieces.”  Cheever wonders if the boy is a “coward.”  He worries that the mother’s “surveillance” of her golden son is excessive.  Has the boy become “vulnerable and morbid” because of his mother’s attention, her protection?

A pretty boy who is loved too much by his mom.  Who is lousy at sports.  Who can’t compete.  A delicate boy, who is cowardly, timid, vulnerable, morbid, under surveillance, unequal to the strain of life in the everyday world.  A budding gay boy.  Where did Cheever find this cliché?  Had he, in his casual reading of Freud, come across a neo-Freudian text called Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life?  A popular book in 1956, it was favorably reviewed in Time.  Its author was a follower of Freud named Edmund Bergler, who emigrated to the United States in order to escape the Nazis and to write books like Divorce Won’t Help Neurotics and The Revolt of the Middle-Aged Man.  According to psychoanalyst Kenneth Lewes, who eviscerates homophobic Freudians in his 1998 study, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Male Homosexuality, Bergler was “the most important theorist of homosexuality in the 1950s.”  Lewes accuses Bergler of twisting the terms of the Oedipus complex to prove that homosexuality is a sickness.  Not just a sickness, but, Bergler says, “a mixture of superciliousness, false aggression, and whimpering.”  Compare this to Cheever’s contempt for homosexuals, “with their funny clothes and their peculiar smells and airs and scraps of French.”

And their pearls!  Back to Cheever’s beach: Our lonely boy is thinking about how his father ignores him.  “When he fell out of the pear tree and broke his arm, his father would undoubtedly have visited him in the hospital had he not been in Washington,” etc.  So much lack of father-love has made the boy sad, if not queer.  It’s his mother’s job to turn him away forever from manly heterosexuality, from bracing swims in chilly lakes and ball games and the redemptive love of a wife with breasts that are “marvelous for nursing and love.”  Thinking longingly of his missing dad, the boy’s “shoulders droop.  He looks childish and forlorn, and his mother calls him to her.”  What happens next should perhaps be quoted in full:

“He sits in the sand at her feet, and she runs her fingers through his light hair.  Then she does something hideous.  One wants to look away but not before we have seen her undo her pearls and fasten them around his golden neck.  ‘See how they shine,’ says she, doing the clasp as irrevocably as the manacle that is welded to the prisoner’s shin.”

It’s hard to read this passage without making jokes.  I want to distance myself from Cheever’s hackneyed diagnosis of homosexuality as an aberration.  I want to laugh at his misreading of Freud, who did not think homosexuality was a sickness.  I want to say that I’m gay even though my mother never gave me pearls, though we did sometimes picnic at the beach.

But Cheever’s scene is an accurate portrayal of the world in which I grew up in the 1960s and even the 1970s.  “Don’t tell your grandmother,” my mother said, when I came out to her at the age of twenty-four in 1983.  “She’ll blame me.”  The notion that someone is to blame for homosexuality is not unique to Cheever, and it has not been chased away even by the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in all those New England states.  No doubt some of the openly gay guys frolicking in the sand in Los Angeles in 2009 – let alone in 1991 – are wannabe movie stars who will duck into the closet if they ever have chance at big careers.  They too will disappear.  Or they will maintain a distinct presence that is signaled by our pronounced refusal to see them, a paradox of visible invisibility that marks the treatment of queer characters in 20th century American novels not just by Cheever, but Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth. . . The list goes on and on.  “Out they go; out they go,” Cheever says, casting out the gold-shouldered gay boy and his hideous mom not just from the white page of the novel he is planning to write, but from “the civilization that we – you and I – shall build.”

Oh, what can you say about a man like that, except that he believed what he read?  That he was a man of his time?  That he is still sitting on beaches all over the United States, perhaps on the benches of the U.S. Senate or Supreme Court, sick with worry about the “gay lifestyle?”  You can also say that he wrote the most beautiful sentences.  Was repression good for Cheever?  Did he need the tension of self-loathing in order to produce his miraculous stories?  Was homophobia just a place holder?  If he were not a tortured bisexual, would he have found some other form of fear and self-loathing in order to have an excuse to lock himself in a basement room in an Upper East Side apartment building and write “Good-bye, My Brother?”  It’s tragic to read Cheever’s Journals and feel the awful suffering that homophobia inflicted on him and on the men and women he loved – tragic and irritating.  You want to tell him to get over it.  He did sort of get over it, after a while.  And then he died.  I’m hard-pressed to claim him as a gay writer, though if he wasn’t gay, what was he?  What are the closet cases and Saturday Night Butches who still comprise a big portion of the lesbian and gay community, whether or not the community is willing to acknowledge them?

Wave it all away, I say, and read his sentences.  Jesus, what a writer.  Contradictory, surprising and perfect, his sentences are full of what Elizabeth Bishop says she demands from a poem: accuracy, mystery, and spontaneity.  In a sense, they are the main characters in his stories, some of which – “The Cure,” “The Five Forty-Eight,” “The Swimmer” – are uniquely odd, part doomed realism, part Christian allegorical whimsy, as if Theodore Dreiser had merged with Nikolai Gogol.  And they are full of Cheever’s helpless love for elevator operators, sleep-in maids, doormen, handy men, sleepy doctors summoned at dawn, wayward children, building superintendents, and all the basement dwellers and denizens of the world of servants and adjuncts to the upper middle-class.  His sentences are animated by love, and by a stylistic flourish that he cannot control.  “Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do?” Flannery O’Connor asks.  “I think that usually it does,” she decides, “for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.”  She must have been reading John Cheever.