Search for truth in workbooks of life

THE JOURNALS, by John Cheever (Vintage, $96). FOR some of us, reading the journals of a favourite writer takes a great deal of work. We are faced with the looming question of how to read these private thoughts which we leaf through curiously and avariciously.

Why did this author keep a diary? What kind of audience did the writer have in mind as he wrote in his journals: himself or the public? Such questions sit prominently in our minds even while reading the introduction to John Cheever's Journals.

Written by his son Benjamin, the preface clarifies that Cheever did not write the journals ''with publication in mind. They were the workbooks for his fiction. They were also the workbooks for his life''.

An attempt to explain why Cheever would want the journals published is addressed later in the introduction. Benjamin states his father ''meant by his writing to escape this loneliness, to shatter the isolation of others . . . the way he dealt with [life]was to articulate it. He made it into a story, and then he published the story''.

This observation is ironic, especially as Cheever writes in his journals in 1967: ''At the back of my mind there is the possibility of someone's reading [the journals] in my absence and after my death, and exclaiming over my honesty, my purity, my valour, etc. What a good man he is!'' While Cheever maintains these journals are truth, his son cautions us to treat them as skeletal stories, the foundations on which Cheever built his fiction.

The memoirs are divided into three chapters, ''The Late Forties and the Fifties'', ''The Sixties'', and ''The Seventies and the Early Eighties''.

The writings gather passion, strength, and focus as the years accumulate - partly due to fine editing by Robert Gottlieb, Cheever's editor, but mostly to the author's growing insight and intensity and developing literary style.

Most of the early passages in the first chapter would be tedious, if not for Cheever's captivating style.

Many of the chronicles of lazy, summer days hint at forthcoming short stories such as The Swimmer, in which a man spends the day swimming in pools to manoeuvre around his neighbourhood. However, the idyllic nature of his life grows quickly prosaic afterseveral entries.

Nonetheless, once having waded through undisciplined accounts of Cheever's early years, we are rewarded with the deeper and desperate journey through alcoholism in his later years as a means of dealing with life.

Yet despite the prominence Cheever gives to his problems with drink, it is not alcoholism or its effects on his health that are at the root of his journal entries.

Nor is it his flagrant and sometimes abashed expressions of desire for nubile, comely men or his emotional roller-coaster dealings with his wife, Mary.

The fear of loneliness dissipates as the years pass and Cheever's writing becomes more relaxed. His observations are more contemplative, less rushed.

He offers more political and social commentary in the final chapter, going so far as to note after Ronald Reagan's presidential election victory in 1980: ''What but a truly great country could freely elect for its Chief Executive a faded and elderly cowboy actor whose veins are so calcified and whose memory is so depleted that he can seldom remember the armchair opinions he expressed at yesterday's lunch?'' It was with this brand of wit and charm that Cheever's life and journals ended after a long bout with cancer, which clouded his thoughts and hampered his writing during his remaining days.

Nevertheless, as Gottlieb suggests in his editor's note, Cheever was determined to see through the creation of something that would take on the shape of a compelling literary truth.