Alan Cheuse Biography
Alan Cheuse comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Perth Amboy, New Jersey, 1940. Education: Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, B.A. 1961, Ph.D. in comparative literature 1974. Career: Toll taker, New Jersey Turnpike, 1961-62; speechwriter, 1965; reporter, Fairchild Publications, 1966; instructor in literature, Bennington College, Vermont, 1970-78; visiting writer, University of the South, 1984, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1984-86, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and since 1987, George Mason University. Book critic, National Public Radio, All Things Considered, since 1984, producer and host, Sound of Writing, since 1989. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1979-80. Member: National Book Critics' Circle. Agent: Nat Sobel, 146 East 19th Street, New York, New York 10003, U.S.A.
The Bohemians: John Reed and His Friends. Cambridge, Massachusetts, n.p., 1982.
The Grandmothers' Club. Salt Lake City, Utah, Peregrine Smith, 1986.
The Light Possessed. Salt Lake City, Utah, Peregrine Smith, 1990.
Candace and Other Stories. Cambridge, Massachusetts, n.p., 1980.
The Tennessee Waltz and Other Stories. Salt Lake City, Utah, Peregrine Smith, 1990.
Lost and Old Rivers: Stories. Dallas, Texas, Southern MethodistUniversity Press, 1998.
Fall Out of Heaven: An Autobiographical Journey. Salt Lake City, Utah, Peregrine Smith, 1987.
Editor, with Caroline Marshall, The Sound of Writing. New York, Doubleday, 1991.
Editor, with Caroline Marshall, Listening to Ourselves. New York, Doubleday, 1993.
Editor, with Nicholas Delbanco, Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work. New York, Columbia University Press, 1996.
Alderman Library, University Of Virginia, Charlottesville.
Two notes about my stories. I tend to see them as pieces as much in the lyric mode as straight narrative, in which I work the language as closely as a poet might. So my stories are as close to writing lyric poetry as I will probably ever get.
As far as grouping them, I can see a rough geographical configuration. There are southern stories, western stories, and some eastern stories. I suppose in another ten or twenty years I'll have boxed the compass in short fiction. But I doubt if this has much to do with their meaning—it's a category that helps me keep track of them, is all, I think.
With regard to Fall Out of Heaven, I have to say that I would like to do more nonfiction, but I haven't yet found a new subject. In the case of this memoir-travel book, the subject was as personal as my own skin, and I had done all the research just by living and suffering. The travel part was the reward, I suppose, for having gone through the hellish rest of it, the battles with my father, the awful separation from my son that came when his mother and I divorced.
As far as finding an overall pattern in my work, who knows? No writer wants to think that he's finished searching for that, not before he himself is finished with life and work. Hemingway noticed certain patterns and began to parody himself. Faulkner kept on reaching and though the work fell off a bit it never became uninteresting. On goes the quest.
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Alan Cheuse is not only a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, but also a widely appearing commentator-critic-lecturer dealing with modern literature and—not least—a member of the writing faculty of George Mason University's MFA Program. Four of the topics he has addressed in his public-speaking engagements have a particular bearing on his concerns as an author. These are: "Writing for the Ear," "Imagining Ancestry," "Fathers and Fictions," and "The Elusive Matter of Form." In varying degrees these work together for Cheuse in his longer works, enabling him to be seen as an experimental, widely ranging littérateur of enormous power and troubling vision.
Cheuse's first novel, The Bohemians: John Reed and His Friends, is dedicated as follows: "For Fathers and Sons—Phil and Josh." Phil, Cheuse's father, died shortly after The Bohemians was written; Josh is Cheuse's teenage son by his first wife. Considering its emotional impact and the way its historic characters are made to come alive for the reader, The Bohemians is perhaps Cheuse's most noteworthy work of fiction. It is an imaginative re-creation of the life of America's premier communist, wherein Cheuse blurs the line between documentary journalism and action-packed adventure fiction while making use of the personal memoir. Reed was a polemical journalist fiercely opposed to America's entering World War I, yet he was committed to overthrowing the capitalist system and replacing it with a radical redistribution of power such as that envisioned by the Bolshevik faction of the American Communist Party. Though Cheuse does not cite reference sources for his detailed "life" of this controversial figure, he seems to capture Reed's language, thereby enabling the reader to "hear" the fervent, irrepressible Reed in his comings and goings with associates on all levels of familiarity.
From childhood in Oregon to death from typhus in a Moscow hospital, Reed's life is played out in a largely first-person narrative pattern enriched through the inclusion of a postscript memoir by his wife, Louise Bryant, poetic inserts, a galaxy of important figures in Reed's life—each seeming to speak and act in propria persona—and a scattering of documentary details, real or imagined. Fascinating as are the occasional appearances of, among others, Lincoln Steffens, Max Eastman, Walter Lippmann, and Woodrow Wilson, Reed's stormy, sometimes tender, relationship with Louise Bryant makes an indelible impression on the reader. (Complicating their relationship was Reed's involvement with Edna St. Vincent Millay and Louise's with Eugene O' Neill.) Problematical as some of Cheuse's dramatic re-creations of Reed's personal history may appear, the live-voice dynamic of the supporting cast of The Bohemians lends plausibility to the book.
Hardly a novel in the literal sense, because it is not a fictional narrative, Fall Out of Heaven: An Autobiographical Journey integrates autobiographical episodes in Cheuse's life with an autobiographical manuscript left by his late father, a Russian immigrant and former captain and fighter pilot in the Soviet air force. The double-helix form of this experimental narrative, representing a heartfelt tribute to the parent with whom Cheuse had long had a tempestuous relationship, was foreshadowed in The Bohemians, written about six years before Fall Out of Heaven. Near the end of his life, John Reed tells his wife that he recently began "a novel in the form of a memoir" and then adds, "Or is it a memoir in the form of a novel? … Well, what the hell, to hell with form! Leave that to the bourgeois artistes!" The Alan Cheuse portion of Fall Out of Heaven is based on a sentimental journey Cheuse took with son Josh to the Far East in the mid-1980s. That journey in turn was based on a strange inner voice Alan felt he had heard at his father's funeral almost four years earlier. It seemed to come from his father, directing Alan to go to Khiva. "Take your own son and go to Khiva, that little desert outpost in Uzbekistan where I spent my best youth, and I'll meet you there, and we'll see what happens next." Another unnatural visitation is recorded in Fall Out of Heaven. The day after Cheuse's friend, John Gardner (fiction writer, medievalist, academic), died in a motorcycle accident in 1982, he appeared to Cheuse in a vision and told him plainly to keep on working. This occurrence took place on the following day as well.
Cheuse's next novel, The Grandmothers' Club, is more of an "imagined" work—though still a reconstruction from a real-life story—than The Bohemians. It grew, he explains in an author's note, out of a New York Times news item he had read in the late 1970s, when he was beginning to write The Bohemians. "The president and CEO of United Brands," which had started out early in the 1800s "trading New England ice for Central American fruit, had jumped from a window high atop the Pan-Am building in midtown Manhattan," because of a "financial scandal, involving, among other things, bribery of high Latin government officials." He had begun "as a rabbinical student;" his most recent position, before entering "the world of corporate finance, had been assistant rabbi" in a Long Island synagogue. However, the central feature of this demanding novel is not the tarnished career of Manny Bloch the self-destructing rabbi but grandmother Minnie Bloch's narrative voice, shaping and projecting more than a mere saga of her antihero son. Minnie is a kind of tribal storyteller, creating a world of cultural experience behind Manny and his troubled family: for example, now a song title ("Mood Indigo," "Light My Fire"), now a commercial-history note on the development of the banana trade. Although some of the dialogue in The Bohemians (Lou Bryant and John Reed before his death, discussing their love and his writing achievement) suggests a parody of Hemingway at his weakest, the vocalized brooding sensibility of Minnie Bloch now and then evokes the powerful sweep and commanding presence of the overseeing narrator of Joyce's Ulysses.
As in Fall Out of Heaven, in The Grandmothers' Club there are also secret messages from beyond the realm of ordinary human experience. Manny Bloch's life has been permanently affected by the tragedy, when he was eight years old, of his father's death in a street accident. From time to time he senses that his dead father is delivering messages to him through the beak of a mysterious bird. At a crucial point in his life, when he finds himself wondering why he is going to the Temple on the High Holy Days, the experience of the oraclebird's arrival is overwhelming and he falls to the ground. Then Manny hears his father's mandate: He must do what he must do, he must go where he must go. His father adds, "Midway in this life, a point I never reached, you must take a new road." Manny thereupon leaves the rabbinate so that he can enter his wife's family's shipping business, and he later becomes a powerful commercial entrepreneur. Manny's suicide, as described poetically by his super-sensitive, unusually articulate mother, provides what is perhaps the most beautifully written passage in the entire novel. In the end it is Manny's long-dead father who dominates Manny's life course and who thereby also exercises an indirectly damaging influence on two other members of Manny's star-crossed family, his wife and daughter.
Cheuse's latest novel, The Light Possessed, reveals a particular artistic and visual trait that he shared with the poet Emily Dickinson, a sensitivity to light. For example, in The Grandmothers' Club, Minnie Bloch tells about one of Manny's bird-visitations. The bird calls Manny's name, "and if sound can have a light, it's a bright light in the middle of the darkness that surrounds him, like a burning bush in a dark meadow, or a star against a black field of velvet, like that, all of the sunlight that was present a moment before condensed into the sound." Light is of much greater importance in the subsequent novel, which deals with 20th-century American art and one of our greatest artists. Cheuse offers us a fictionalized career study of Georgia O'Keefe (here called Ava Boldin) against the background of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz (Albert Stigmar in the novel), numerous relatives, and fellow artists. One real-life character appears in propria persona: Stanley Edgar Hyman, Bennington College professor, literary critic, and free-living man-about-town.
Again in this novel there is the figure of the unnatural visitant. This time it is Eve, Ava's twin, who died at birth. When Ava was very young, she claimed that Eve appeared to her secretly, giving her information about future happenings. At the end of the book, it is this dead infant who has the last word, as she asks her sister (now so widely renowned for the use she has made of light in her scenes of the New Mexico desert) to clear up certain questions for her before she awakens from her dream. She wants to be shown, Eve pleads, "if color has a sound and how light creates music. And if the shape of things takes on a shade, visible near darkness … and … if light is the old metaphor for infinity, and … if color is light given in terms of the world." The Light Possessed, which contains a story line more difficult to follow than that of The Grandmothers' Club, exhibits to a fault three major features of the modernist mode in fiction: stream-of-consciousness narrative, jumbled plot sequences, and multi-vocal rendition, as in for example, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.
A number of Cheuse's short stories, originally appearing in various literary and mass-market magazines, were collected in Candace and Other Stories ; all but the title story were published again in a collection titled The Tennessee Waltz and Other Stories. Although Cheuse clearly prefers to write novel-length, biographically based fiction (currently  he is at work on another historical/biographical novel), he appears to favor "short takes," i.e., thin slices of life, as alternative fiction forms. Here his writing suggests somewhat the minimalist mode of certain stories by the late Raymond Carver. There is an underlying sadness in these tales of unhappy families and family members, each unhappy in a different way. Nashville and country music feature prominently in this assortment. Cheuse's real power as a writer of fiction is most pronounced when he has long pondered, perhaps brooded, over a complicated individual caught up in a formidable struggle with self and ominous circumstances. And though Cheuse in his fiction reflects touches of various contemporaneous authors, he is also capable of producing passages of rare poetic beauty as well as narratives with memorable personal voices, which in a sense sets him apart from some of the better known commercial writers with literary aspirations.
—Samuel I. Bellman
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