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John Cheever: Falconer

I love John Cheever’s short fiction.  Over the years I’ve made my way through quite a bit of The Stories of John Cheever, that massive collection of his short stories that won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the various years surrounding its publication in 1978.  Until Falconer (1977), I’d never read one of his novels.  I’d heard mixed things about Falconer, and about Cheever’s other novels as well.  For some, they are brilliant.  For others, they are just pieced together short stories, and not great ones at that.  I guess my own review of Falconer is mixed as well: I was at times elated and at other times — too many, actually — disappointed.

One moment of elation came with the first sentence where Cheever introduces us to Falconer, the state prison in which Ezekiel Farragut, the book’s protagonist, a professor of literature, is going to be incarcerated for fratricide.

The main entrance to Falconer — the only entrance for convicts, their visitors and the staff — was crowned by an esutcheon representing Liberty, Justice and, between the two, the soverieng power of government.  Liberty wore a mobcap and carried a pike.  Government was the federal Eagle holding an olive branch and armed with hunting arrows.  Justice was conventional; blinded, vaguely erotic in her clinging robes and armed with a headsman’s sword.

Sadly, for me the rest of the descriptions of Falconer fell rather flat.  Where this first sentence succeeds in being poetic and gritty, many of the other general descriptions of the prison felt simply overdone and fake.  It was kind of hard to take it all seriously, and I got rather tired trying.  But then, as I mentioned above, a moment of elation –

There is real strength in this novel’s depiction of symbolic prisons.  Farragut has been imprisoned in a sarcastic marriage, he is imprisoned by drug addiction, he is imprisoned in a condescending family, he has been imprisoned his entire life in one construct or another.  Here is an example of just how brilliant some passages are:

The accident or what they called the murder had taken place, Farragut thought, because of the fact that whenever he remembered or dreamed about his family he always saw them from the back.  They were always stamping indignantly out of concert halls, theaters, sports arenas and restaurants, and he, as the youngest, was always in the rear.  “If Koussevitzky thinks I’ll listen to that . . .” “That umpire is crooked.”  “This play is degenerate.”  “I don’t like the way that waiter looked at me.”  “That clerk was impudent.”  And so on.  They saw almost nothing to its completion, and that’s the way he remembered them, heading, for some reason in wet raincoats, for the exit.  It had occurred to him that they may have suffered terribly from claustrophobia and disguised this weakness as moral indignation.

This passage and others like it were reminiscent of some of my favorite pieces of Cheever’s short fiction.  Cheever was gifted in his ability to take an abstract emotion and help us readers come to feel it so closely.  Indeed, his short stories are, to me, passages like the one above expanded over a few more pages. 

Another aspect of Falconer that I liked was its approach to addiction:

Farragut was a drug addict and felt that the consciousness of the opium eater was much broader, more vast and representative of the human condition than the consciousness of someone who had never experienced addiction.

Several of Farragut’s prisons are addictions he suffers through, and again Cheever is able to broaden that to, as he says, “the human condition.”  Farragut not being the typical criminal, his imprisonment is more representative of what Cheever was saying about society.  Perhaps that is why the actual descriptions of the prison fell flat while the description of the entrance to the prison, with its cuts at society, was so strong.  The following passage is loaded with irony when we take the story as a whole, particularly when we set this passage next to the description of Falconer’s entrance and next to the description of Farragut’s family:

“Your sentence would be lighter were you a less fortunate man,” said the judge, “but society has lavished and wasted her riches upon you and utterly failed to provoke in you that conscience that is the stamp of an educated and civilized human being and a useful member of society.

Because society itself is being indicted, Falconer is in many ways an escape for Farrugut.  He finds a more passionate love with a young prisoner than he ever had with his wife.  He gets his government-mandated drug fix daily (almost).  Still, his jailer’s frequent refrain undercuts any feeling of release: “Why is you an addict?”

Overall, I’m glad I read Falconer.  I don’t care that it seemed to have several separate stories.  There is a wholeness to the work that makes it more than just a bunch of short stories.  My main problem was the way the transitions between the events created several moments when my interest drifted.  Perhaps this is a book that requires a second reading to capture the textures — but if I ever read it again, it will not be for a long while.

9 thoughts on “John Cheever: Falconer

  1. I’m another reader who has read quite a few Cheever stories (and am somewhat less impressed than you are, although some are very good) but never one of his novels. I have been contemplating buying the Library of America volume of his complete novels — I think this perceptive review has dissuaded me. Dipping into the Collected Stories every now and then seems to be the best course for me.

  2. Trevor says:

    While I’d be interested in your views, Kevin, I think you’re making the right decision in at least waiting to read this novel, if not Cheever’s others. I am a big Cheever fan, so if you are only an occasional fan I can’t see this on lighting a fire. However, a new Library of America book is always tempting :).

  3. The great thing about L of A volumes is that you know you can take several years to make up your mind and they will still be in print. :-)

  4. John Self says:

    I read Falconer four years ago – it was in fact my first Cheever, which may be significant – so I can’t speak from memory, but only refer to this response which I wrote on Palimpsest at the time:

    A reader and his preconceptions are soon parted, and so it was with John Cheever’s Falconer (1977), which I had always assumed to be a bucolic, sentimental thing, a sort of American Kestrel for a Knave. I think I gathered this impression from hearing of Cheever’s smalltown narratives, The Wapshot Chronicle and The Wapshot Scandal. But I never factored in that he might have more than one string to his bow, because in fact, Falconer is short (160 pages), brisk and brutal. It is named after Falconer Correctional Facility, where the main character, Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Farragut languishes after killing his brother. (“I did not kill my brother.” “You struck him with a fire iron. He died.” “I struck him with a fire iron. He was drunk. He hit his head on the hearth.”)

    The book simultaneously describes Farrgut’s existence in Falconer and his life as it led up to the killing. Cheever writes with a grim, disgusted air, filtering everything through Farragut’s twisted consciousness. Why his consciousness is twisted, and why he killed his brother (“I did not kill my brother”), we have to wait until the end of the book to find out. Anyway the journey is remarkable, with wonderful sustained scenes of everything from marital strife to loving homosexual relationships arising from prison buggery (Cheever himself, as I understand it, repressed homosexual feelings in his life. Better out than in, John, even if it’s only on the page). And there are quite brilliant character portraits lasting a page or so each:

    Tennis had come on hard on Farragut’s second day, early in the morning when they had swept their cells and were waiting for chow. ‘I’m Loyd Haversham, Jr,’ he said. ‘Does that name ring a bell? No? They call me Tennis. I thought you might know because you look like the sort of man who might play tennis. I won the Spartanburg doubles, twice in a row. I’m the second man in the history of tennis to have done this. I learned on private courts, of course. I’ve never played on a public court. I’m listed in the sports encyclopaedia, the dictionary of sports greats, I’m a member of the tennis academy and I was the cover story in the March issue of Racquets. Racquets is the leading publication of the tennis equipment industry.’ While he talked, Tennis displayed all the physical business of a hard sell – hands, shoulders, pelvis, everything was in motion. ‘I’m in here because of a clerical error, an error in banking. I’m a visitor, a transient, I see the parole board in a few days and I’ll be out then. I deposited thirteen thousand dollars in the Bank for Mutual Savings on the morning of the ninth and wrote three cheques for two hundred dollars before the deposit had cleared. By accident I used my roommate’s checkbook – he was runner-up in the Spartanburg doubles and never forgave me my victory. All a man needs is a little jealousy and a clerical error – bad luck – and they throw him into jail, but I’ll leap the net in a week or two. This is more of a goodbye than a hello but hello anyhow!’ Tennis, like most of them, talked in his sleep and Farragut had heard him asking: ‘Have you been taken care of? Have you been taken care of?’ Bumpo explained this to Farragut. Tennis’s athletic career was thirty years in the past and he had been picked up for check forgery while working as a delicatessen clerk.

    This sort of dense, brilliant prose pervades the book and leaves the reader mesmerised and exhausted. Falconer is such a rich read that I immediately had a hankering to read the rest of Cheever’s output (four novels and a fat bunch of stories) but am stymied by the fact that much of his stuff seems not to be available in the UK.

    (ends)

    Actually all his books are now back in print in the UK, and I’ve read Bullet Park and Oh What a Paradise it Seems since then – the former an odd thing, the novel equivalent perhaps of a problem play, but with some brilliance nonetheless. The latter I can’t remember at all. Undoubtedly the best of Cheever is in his stories, and even Blake Bailey in the recent biog can’t bring himself to praise any of the novels without qualification, but nonetheless I will always be grateful to Falconer for introducing me to the tricky, darker-than-it-seems world of JC.

  5. Trevor says:

    John, I’m always glad when you’ve visited the site — and I see you’ve got more to say on some other posts. Thanks!

    I’m especially happy to read your initial thoughts on Falconer. I do agree there is some brilliance, but for me it just didn’t live up to the best of his short fiction — an awful stick to measure with, I know. I am interested in eventually reading more of his longer works, but I’ve still got hundreds of pages of his short stories to keep me occupied in the meantime. Plus, as I see you noted for yourself, J.F. Powers beckons!

  6. Darryl says:

    “Falconer” was my maiden voyage with Cheever,and I was not dissapointed. In fact, I had to review my why I had never read him before: university, first job, starter marriage et al. In this case, the wait was worth it. Fine prose, deftly wrought, delicate yet weighty, and a superb revelation, not simply of redemption (there are plenty of overt religious symbols) but of a particular man’s psyche, where drugs helped manage dysfunction as well as disorder, and the sheer peasure of reading good prose, in a compact form. Superb!

  7. Trevor says:

    I was more disappointed, Darryl. I wonder if the difference lies in how we approached Falconer. I had already loved many of Cheever’s short stories and probably came to Falconer with inappropriate preconceptions, i.e., I wanted it to be A but it turned out to be B. It didn’t work for me, one way or the other.

  8. Kevin J MacLellan says:

    Hi Trevor,
    I am back from a hiatus, and noted this review. It reminds me of my own feelings about Cheever. Although I did read his stories – long ago – I was of the impression that he was too urbane, too socialite for my tastes; rather thin fair written for the New Yorker with the same aplomb with which their cartoons are drawn. Fun for the moment, but otherwise, not so much.
    So I am intrigued by Falconer. It seems more gritty than the stories, but still uneven, at best. Well, it’s short, so no harm in trying–eventually. John’s positive response and your own negative response leave me like the proverbial ass between two equi-distant bales of hay!
    Ha.
    Regards, kjml

  9. Trevor says:

    I’d certainly recommend it, kjml! Maybe this review renders me the proverbial ass — full stop.

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