There were many books I admired this year, books I read and reread and recommended. Salvage the Bones is every bit as good as they say it is. And there were groundbreaking narrative nonfiction books about India: Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned, Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (out in Feb. 2012) are works of profound witness, kinship, artistic achievement, and moral necessity.
But only one book left me breathless.
I didn’t read — I succumbed — to The Journals of John Cheever. I picked it up one evening after the guests had gone, after the ashtrays had been emptied and the dog walked. I was lightly drunk and working on getting more seriously drunk (the Cheevering hour?); I idly opened the book — and let it have its way with me all weekend in the spare room.
It’s a disheveling, debauching book. Even a dangerous book: it invites you to contemplate — even embrace — your corruption. These journals, posthumously edited by Cheever’s longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb, are a 40-year chronicle of wanting health but plotting, ardently, self-destruction. Of struggling with alcoholism and bisexuality. Of wanting very much to love one’s wife and only one’s wife — but falling gratefully into the arms of any stranger who will have you. Of the soul as irredeemably “venereal, forlorn, and uprooted.”
Cheever had a brain and body so responsive — “touchy like a triggered rattrap” — everything he sees turns him on, makes him cry, turns him rhapsodic. Desire stains everything. And it isn’t airy, “Chopinesque longing,” no — it’s itchy and inconvenient, “as coarse and real as the hair on my belly,” he writes. “In the public urinal I am solicited by the man on my right. I do not dare turn my head. But I wonder what he looks like. No better or no worse, I guess than the rest of us in such throes.”
I love this Cheever, so lust-worn, fatigued, wise. The Cheever who observes, “I prayed for some degree of sexual continence, although the very nature of sexuality is incontinence.” But I love him more when he’s cross, crass, and ornery. When he’s querulous and moaning for “a more muscular vocabulary,” his face on a postage stamp, a more reliable erection. When he carps about his contemporaries (Calvino: “cute,” Nabokov: “all those sugared violets”). But Cheever the ecstatic, who merges with the mountain air and streams, who finds in writing and sex a bridge between the sacred and the profane and is as spontaneous and easy as a child — he is indispensable.
“Today gloomy and humid. I walk the dogs in a heavy rain. Water lilies grow at the edge of the pond. I want to pick some and take them home to Mary. I decide that this is foolish. I am a substantial man of fifty-eight, and I will walk past the lilies in a dignified manner. Having made this decision, I strip off my clothes, dive into the pond and pick a lily. I will be dignified tomorrow.”
The days are short and few. Stay up late with John Cheever. Contemplate your corruption with cheer. Be dignified tomorrow. Remember: “The morning light is gold as money and pours in the eastern windows. But it is the shadow that is exciting.”
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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.
The Marriage Plot
The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life
The Bathtub Spy
The Art of Fielding
Leaves of Grass
A Moment in the Sun
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
The Sense of an Ending
Haruki Murakami returned to our top spot this month with 1Q84 (read our review here), while Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (read our review here) crept up to the second spot. Meanwhile, Ann Patchett’s Kindle Single The Getaway Car jumped into our third spot and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods was also making a strong move higher.
Another Kindle Single, Christopher Hitchens’ timely The Enemy, and Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test graduate to our Hall of Fame. Don’t miss Janet’s review of the latter.
Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern appears on our list shortly after winning the National Book Award, while the Booker Prize win propels Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending onto our list.
Near Misses: How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, 11/22/1963, The Sisters Brothers, Salvage the Bones, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition See Also: Last month’s list.
The National Book Award winners for 2011 have been announced. The big prize for fiction went to Jesmyn Ward for Salvage the Bones, a novel one critic called “Katrina-drenched” and another “gritty, loamy and alive.” (excerpt)
The non-fiction award went to The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt (excerpt). The Poetry award was won by Nikky Finney for Head Off & Split. The winner in the Young People’s Literature category was Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (excerpt).
Award season is hitting its stride, and this year’s National Book Award finalists have been announced. For the second year in a row, the fiction finalists number four women versus one male author, and many of the “bigger” literary releases of the year are nowhere to be found. Also for the second year in a row, a New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer is recognized. By virtue of that, Téa Obreht may be the most well-known name of the bunch (our review). A pair of independent or university presses are represented among the fiction finalists, including Bellevue Literary Press, which made its name when Paul Harding’s Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer.
In nonfiction, we have the first graphic book in to be recognized in this category.
Update: There was a late addition to the YA finalists list: Chime by Franny Billingsley
Update 2: Due to a mixup by and subsequent pressure from the Foundation, Lauren Myracle has withdrawn Shine from consideration.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:
The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak (excerpt)
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (excerpt)
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (excerpt)
Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman (excerpt)
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (excerpt)
The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism by Deborah Baker (excerpt)
Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by Mary Gabriel (excerpt)
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (excerpt)
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable (our review)
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss (excerpt)
Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney
The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa
Double Shadow by Carl Phillips
Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems: 2007-2010 by Adrienne Rich (excerpt)
Devotions by Bruce Smith
Young People’s Literature:
My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (excerpt)
Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin (excerpt)
Shine by Lauren Myracle
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt (excerpt)