Falconer by John Cheever

FalconerI picked up this book on the strength of a James Wood recommendation (via The Elegant Variation). In 1994, the renowned critic listed Cheever’s FALCONER as among the best American and British writing since 1945. The writing is phenomenal, as one would expect from Cheever and a James Wood recommendation.

While largely set in prison, this book is not what I would call a prison novel. FALCONER does touch on some common prison novel tropes and, indeed, a number of parallels can be drawn between FALCONER and Stephen King’s RITA HAYSWORTH AND SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Both main characters come from relatively moneyed pasts, they are not career criminals, and both obtain clerical jobs within the prison that allow them special privileges. There are, of course, differences. The main character in this novel, Farragut, is guilty, importantly so. The reader also quickly learns that he has a severe heroin addiction. While these details are consistent with a prison setting, the prison itself is not always convincing. Or perhaps prisons have changed this much. At any rate, the prison seems to be primarily a device to separate Farragut from his wife. In fact, the prison could be read as a metaphor for Farragut’s marriage.

The book, however, is not about marriage either. Early in the book, there is a description of Farragut’s wife:

She had an authenticated beauty. Several photographers had asked her to model, although her breasts, marvelous for nursing and love, were a little too big for that line of work…”You know,” [Farragut’s] son had said, “I can’t talk to Mummy when there’s a mirror in the room. She’s really balmy about her looks.” Narcissus was a man and he couldn’t make the switch, but she had, maybe twelve or fourteen times, stood in front of the full-length mirror in their bedroom and asked him, “Is there another woman of my age in this country who is as beautiful as I?” She had been naked, overwhelmingly so, and he had thought this an invitation, but when he touched her she said, “Stop fussing with my breasts. I’m beautiful.”

This early scene is prelude to an account of their courtship and a meeting of husband and wife at prison. At the meeting, his wife foreshadows the true subject of the novella: “I wouldn’t want to be married to a homosexual, having already married a homicidal drug addict.”

The prison, in my reading, seems a metaphor, if a metaphor of anything, of the proverbial closet and anti-homosexual prejudice. In FALCONER, Cheever explores homosexuality, particularly among men who are, at least outside of prison, heterosexual men and prejudice against them. Cheever fares better in this exploration, than in his descriptions of prison life. Some aspects of the novel, published in 1975, seem almost quaint by today’s standards. The novel was written well after other authors had written explicitly about homosexuality, but well before the only significant public policy question became whether homosexual relationships will be accorded equal standing before the law. The characters’ attitudes betray this particular datedness. But it is a dating of the setting, not the novel.

Cheever manages to create a portrait of the in-closet community at a particular time, his time. This was for me the most engaging aspect of the novella. I would not say Cheever misses with his many, explicit attempts to find universality, but they stand out. The examples can be mundane: “He waited for [his wife and son] to emerge [from the visitor’s room] like a waiter in an American-plan hotel waiting for the dining room doors to open, like a lover, like a drought-ruined farmer waiting for rain, but without the sense of the universality of waiting.”; “There was, Farragut thought, some universality to a full bladder.” But his extrapolations from individual moments to universality strike most honestly when touching upon sexuality, as when Cheever describes a line of prisoners masturbating in “the Valley”:

The wall above the urinal was white tiling with a very limited power of reflection. You could make out the height and the complexion of the men on your left and your right and that was about all…There was some rightness in having the images of the lovers around them opaque. They were universal, they were phantoms, and any skin sores, or signs of cruelty, ugliness, stupidity or beauty, could not be seen. Farragut went here regularly…..

or when used to sketch a character:

Marshack…was very useful. He was indispensable at greasing machinery and splicing BX cables and he would be a courageous and fierce mercenary in some border skirmish if someone more sophisticated gave the order to attack. There would be some universal goodness in the man – he would give you a match for your cigarette and save you a seat at the movies – but there was no universality to his lack of intelligence. Marshack might respond to the sovereignty of love, but he could not master geometry and he should not be asked to. Farragut put him down as a killer.

And this, in the end, is Cheever’s goal, I think. He manages to sketch the emotional life of closeted homosexuals, including portraying them as regular, if tortured, men, and also to reveal at least some universal aspects of mankind. He achieves this, I think. Not in a grand way, but adequately. I would not characterize FALCONER as a great book, but it is a worthwhile book. Cheever addresses worthwhile subjects with enviable skill and sometimes piercing insight.

I hope I have not cast this as an issue book. It is a well-told story with depth. The writing is topnotch. Some of the themes could be discomfitting for the squeamish, but FALCONER deserves to be remembered and read.

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