by JDP

A more measured and restrained novel than most of its reviewers assert, Falconer nonetheless provides a compelling and straightforward take on prisons in America; intermittently great, but generally too sparse, the novel can easily be knocked off in a couple days of focused reading and this makes it worth the venture.

John Cheever / American / 1977 / 211 pages

Occasionally there exists an environment that falls so far outside the societal mainstream — but at the same time is so self-contained — that it begs for novelistic treatment. Consider the bizarre and nuanced intricacies of the academic life and of the many great “campus” novels it has engendered (Pnin by Nabokov, for example, or Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis). Think also of the mental ward (Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), the courthouse (Kafka’s The Trial), and the sanatorium (Mann’s The Magic Mountain). These institutional settings provide fodder for the exploration of characters in extremis as they navigate exaggerated microcosms prescribed for their conditions by society at large. Rather than studying what happens when a healthy and an ill person are thrown together, let us instead observe the interactions of a roomful of sick people. Rather than exploring the follies of one professor set loose beyond the boundaries of the university, let us instead pile into the same room a whole department of academics and witness their petty bickering and insecurities. By writing about representative human behaviors in unrepresentative social situations, authors stand to make profound contributions to our understanding of the way people think and act.

This is the tactic John Cheever employs in Falconer, a novel set in a 1970s correctional facility in the American Northeast. While flashbacks and prison breaks sometimes push the narration beyond the facility’s walls and watchtowers, by and large we’re given a detailed, yet brief, glimpse into prison life. Due to its brevity and structure, I would argue that it is a difficult book to appraise. In the first few pages, the reader feels as if he’s going to be reading a book written with the purpose of indicting the prison system and its practices. Then, a bit later on, it seems the book is a treatise on the ramifications of drug and alcohol addiction. Count off a few additional pages and now we’re exploring themes of sexuality and homoeroticism. It’s not really until you’ve hit the book’s midsection that you realize Cheever is getting at the sum of these: a variegated patchwork of themes that, taken together, illustrate the powerfully dehumanizing forces at play in the American prison.

Our narrative entry into this world is the convicted murderer, drug addict, and college professor Ezekiel Farragut. The novel begins on the day that Farragut is admitted to the Falconer Correctional Facility and, though the passage of time is somewhat vague, Cheever takes us through at least a couple of years of his incarceration. Farragut’s fellow criminals and the prison’s guards are rendered in fairly predictable and one-dimensional capacities: the guards are uneducated barbarians who occasionally take a liking to one or two prisoners for whom they’ll pass a cigarette through the bars; the prisoners themselves are anecdote-swapping, sex-crazed con artists who are serving out sentences too severe for their crimes; and the medical, legal, and kitchen staffs are cold and unfeeling automatons who harbor little compassion for the incarcerated. This is federal prison; we all know that we don’t want to end up here.

While most of the characters are unsympathetic, Farragut’s case is a bit more complicated. Born into a broken household and forced to fight in a ground war overseas, Farragut is pushed toward drug dependency at a young age and — despite his ability to marry, find a job, and raise a child — can’t escape the fate for which he appears destined: an accidental crime borne out of family and marital tension. Supposedly, he didn’t mean to do it; supposedly, his legal representation was subpar and the jury was biased against him. Regardless of Farragut’s intent, however, it is certainly clear from the narrative that the guy he murdered was a bad dude and had it coming anyway. From all of this, we gather that Cheever feels bad for Farragut and is using him to illustrate the grave injustices of the prison system: the inmates are regularly strip searched and medically examined in front of one another, drug withdrawal episodes serve as entertainment for the prison guards, the food is horrible, etc.

But these accounts and these circumstances are not nearly so shocking as the reviewers indicate and as Cheever perhaps intended. The book reads like a Disney movie in comparison to the prison episodes depicted in The Feast of the Goat by Vargas Llosa. Also, the imaginativeness of the supposed rehabilitation efforts in Falconer are anemic when juxtaposed next to those of considerably more disturbing novels like, say, A Clockwork Orange or 1984. Even the sense of injustice falls a bit flat. To begin, as opposed to a political prisoner in a totalitarian society, Farragut actually did something wrong and the punishment seems generally commensurate with the crime. Secondly, the book’s protagonist is profoundly unsympathetic. I am typically not one to argue that I must feel like I’m in league with the main character of a book in order for the effort to be well-received; however, when the premise of the novel is that overly bad things are happening to undeserving people, I think a legitimate prerequisite of this exercise is that we’re working with a character for whom we can root. I don’t think that Farragut cuts it.

An additional complicating factor in the novel is its treatment of homosexuality. From what I’ve read of reviewers of the novel, it seems like they’ve interpreted Farragut’s brief sexual relationship with another prisoner as a last-ditch effort to retain some manner of human connection in the emotionally sterile environment of the Falconer Correctional Facility. But from what we know of recent biographical treatments of Cheever’s life, the author himself was bisexual; this fact makes interpreting Farragut’s same-sex relationship as some sort of desperate clinging-to-straws endeavor seem, I think, somewhat coarse. Rather than a mechanical outlet, this relationship is a profoundly emotional one for Farragut (as are the same-sex relationships of the other characters in the novel). Certainly writing about this subject in the 1970s was a bit of a high wire act, but I would have preferred that Cheever dwelt more on this issue. I think a charitable reading of the novel would push us to move beyond the simple conclusion that “men in prison get lonely so they turn to each other.” Cheever indicates that there is much more at stake in these relationships, but doesn’t spend enough time exploring the ramifications of his claim.

The end of the novel is too sudden, taciturn, and canned (indeed, the plot device Cheever employs to set the stage for a prison break borrows almost verbatim from The Count of Monte Cristo; as this French mega novel was published in 1844, I would like to think that the 133-year advantage Cheever had on Dumas would have allowed for better innovation, but whatever). Maybe if the novel had been twice as long or, perhaps, twice as provocative, I would have thought more highly of it. As it stands, the book has its merits. For example, for the second time in about a month, I find myself in awe of an author’s use of letters in a novel; indeed, although Cheever employs far fewer letters than Bellow did in Herzog, what is there is fantastic. Additionally, Cheever’s prose is at times quite good. The descriptive passages are often beautifully rendered and the author does manage to pull at the heartstrings a time or two. At one point in the novel, there is a outright insurrection that takes place at a nearby prison and this event dramatically (but subtly) changes the relationship between the guards and the prisoners at Falconer. Cheever handles this shift in atmosphere masterfully.

As an American author, Cheever is not well-known and, for this reason, I had very few — if any — preconceived ideas about what I should expect from his novel. After having read Falconer, however, I think I’d probably point readers toward another of his works — but which? His other novels are even more obscure than this one and I can’t seem to locate a dependable source for guidance. Much like O’Hara, however, the bulk of his reputation seems to have been cultivated in the short story rather than the novel. If Falconer was too short, perhaps this was the reason.

Rating: 4 / 10

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