by John Cheever
Vintage (1992)
224 pp

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, 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.

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