A Triumvirate of Alcoholic United States Writers

Recently, on my commutes, I’ve been listening to “The Stories of John Cheever”. If ever there was a writer to read between watching episodes of “Mad Men”, it is John Cheever. Cheever was the first great writer about suburban living in the United States.

These suburban men take the commuter train or bus to their offices and get into all sorts of trouble during the day at their offices and during the late afternoon and into night in bars after work, sometimes not making it back home until the next day. The women are home alone in their big houses waiting for whoever happens to show up at their door. Depending on who shows up at the door, the women may also be getting into trouble.

Every home is equipped with a full bar in the dining room to make cocktails after work, before dinner, and maybe after dinner. Everyone is watching to make sure the maid or the cook is not secretly taking drinks and watering down the alcohol in the bottles. After dinner is served and eaten, the husband and wife will each have a cigarette at the table before dessert is served. The children may or may not be around, no one really notices.

The evenings consist of a continuous round of neighborhood parties where the husbands and wives probably will get into even more trouble. And then another day.

One of John Cheever’s stories called “The Five Forty-Eight” is about just such a guy who takes the commuter train downtown to his office. He notices one of the young women who works for him and invites her out. She suggests they go back to her place for drinks. He ends up staying the night. A few days later the man fires the young woman to avoid any further complications. Things continue fine for a few months, but the man is a little worried in the back of his mind. Then one night as he is returning home from work on the commuter train, the young woman gets on the train and sits down beside him. She claims she has a gun, and he better not try to move to another part of the train or she will shoot him. I won’t give away any more of the story, but that is the story. I kid you not.

“The Stories of John Cheever” is a fine book and one of the best selling collections of short stories ever. Late in his life Cheever, a severe alcoholic who frequently was drunk by noon, gave up drinking and acknowledged his bisexuality late in his life.

In the just-published book, “Raymond Carver, A Writer’s Life” by Carol Sklenicka, there is a story about John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Both Carver and Cheever were teaching at an Iowa writers’ workshop where they became drinking buddies. “He and I did nothing but drink,” Carver said of that 1973 workshop. “I don’t think either of us took the covers off our typewriters.” Twice a week they made their regular run to the liquor store as soon as it opened in the morning in Carver’s car, because Cheever had no car.

At that time in 1973, Raymond Carver was an out of control alcoholic who habitually ran out on the check in restaurants. One time he hit his first wife on the head with a wine bottle severing an artery and nearly killing her. By 1977 both Carver and Cheever were able to swear off alcohol for their few remaining years.

Another issue is raised in this new biography of Raymond Carver. Apparently Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, heavily edited the stories in Carver’s most famous books “Would You Please Be Quiet Please?” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Now both Carver’s original versions of these stories and the versions after Lish’s heavy editing have both been published, and there are huge differences. This matters, because these stories have become iconic in modern literature under the category of “dirty realism”.

If anyone captured the spirit of Mad Men as much as John Cheever, it would be Richard Yates. Probably his most well-known novel now is “Revolutionary Road”. Not only was Richard Yates alcoholic; he also suffered from bipolar disorder. Yates was a four pack a day smoker of cigarettes, and one time was responsible for a fire in his apartment that destroyed his apartment and several others. Yates’ drinking and psychotic outbreaks caused him to be committed to mental institutions several times. One time he threatened to kill Gordon Lish when the editor rejected him.

Yet Richard Yates remained prolific as a writer. For many years, Richard Yates was my favorite writer. I’ve read every one of his novels and all of his stories. Yates’ novels that I would strongly recommend are “The Easter Parade”, “A Good School”, as well as “Revolutionary Road”. He also was a great short story writer, and both his story collections, “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” and “Liars in Love” are exceptional.

These three alcoholic but very perceptive writers are among the most significant writers in the United States since World War II.


6 responses to this post.

  1. This is a very timely post, Tony. I’ve only just rediscovered “The Stories of John Cheever” which I bought on a trip to New York last year but filed away upon my return, then promptly forgot about.

    I’m a big fan of Mad Men, having just watched Season 2 on DVD (I binged out and watched every episode back to back in two evenings!!), so I really must read the Cheever book.

    I don’t have any Carver in the pile but I do have Yates’ “Easter Parade” somewhere.


  2. Hi Kimbofo,
    I just completed season 1 of Mad Men, and now on to season 2. Mad Men is really redefining that era for us. The Fifties used to be considered a staid conformist somewhat puritanical time, and Mad Men is anything but. Of course Mad Men gets into the early sixties when the walls started breaking down. It is funny how Mad Men has captured the imaginations of so many young people with its heavy drinking, heavy smoking, and all that messing around.


  3. Posted by whisperinggums on November 25, 2009 at 11:17 PM

    Mad men fan here too … but have only seen the first season. Some I know hate it because of the behaviour of the people BUT I love it for its stylish evocation of the era.

    Thanks for this post – I have been meaning to read Cheever and Yates for a while…we don’t hear much of them over here (except of course when Revolutionary Road came out on film).


  4. Hi,
    I like Mad Men a lot, but am not sure at all how realistic a depiction of the advertising world of the early 1960s it really is. The show does such a good job presenting its characters and putting them in interesting situations, it really doesn’t matter how realistic it is. Thanks for stopping by.


  5. Posted by whisperinggums on November 26, 2009 at 7:03 AM

    Oh, I don’t know a lot about Madison Ave in the 60s so wasn’t really talking realism. When I say “stylish evocation” I rather meant in that way of getting some sort of essence of the era – its look and its values – rather than in terms of realism. It sort of has that hyper-realist look, if that makes sense?


  6. Revolutionary Road 2008 -Based on a novel by
    A young couple living in a Connecticut suburb during the mid-1950s struggle to come to terms with their personal problems while trying to raise their two children. Based on a novel by Richard Yates.


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