Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

Category: American


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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For its many stylistic tools, subtly complex narration, and beautiful hilarity, this book should be required reading for any denizen of American literature.

Saul Bellow / American / 1964 / 371 pages

The Midwest is besieged by snow and (relatedly, in part) I’ve been freed these last six days from any sort of meaningful academic obligations. Via some holiday gifting and my own perusals, I’ve been able to cobble together a few books by Saul Bellow and, in solidarity with our even colder Chicago neighbors to the north, I decided to dedicate my unexpectedly long weekend to the author. It’s an investment that has paid substantial dividends. Herein, I review Herzog, but I also read his shorter novel, Seize the Day and spent several hours leafing through a new collection of Bellow’s personal letters to friends, colleagues, and editors.

It is strange, I think, that my generation of students is so thoroughly acquainted with the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck, but is nearly criminally unaware of other American greats such as Philip Roth (whose fantastic American Pastoral is equally as shattering commentary as anything Steinbeck penned), John O’Hara (whose first novel Appointment in Samarra is at least as mediocre as Tender is the Night), and, yes, Saul Bellow (whose impressive ability to wrack up domestic and international writing awards surely places him as the most decorated of all American authors). Having read two of Bellow’s novels, however, I can understand the negligence: he’s not an easy knot to untie.

I don’t refer to the novel’s physical girth here (Herzog is no War and Peace in this regard) nor its prose stylings (certainly The Crying of Lot 49 proves to be substantially more confusing). But Bellow has written a book that is largely plotless, intensely psychoanalytical, and disarmingly simple in its presentation. There’s a lot going on under the hood and nowhere is this more apparent than in his renderings of complex, multidimensional characters. Moses Herzog, for example, is in a tedious position: two ex-wives, children scattered throughout multiple cities, jobless, and, quite possibly, heading toward a psychological meltdown. But digging deeper than these facades reveals that Herzog is a victim of broader dynamics. He suffers from money problems borne out of an intensely capitalistic environment, hopelessly attempting to spin his academic career into the type of high level profitability netted by his more business-oriented brothers. Herzog is taken advantage of by family members, duplicitous personal acquaintances, and the weight of society’s expectations. His Jewish Canadian background occasionally puts him at odds with American and Catholic sensibilities. And the list grows.

All of this bears down considerably on Herzog’s marked genius and we get the sense that we’re trying to buy spoiled produce. Just a few years before the novel opens, Herzog published a brilliant academic treatise on Romanticism that threatened to revolutionize the field of humanist studies. He had an appointment as a university professor and spent much of his time traveling throughout Europe. All of this has recently evaporated at the novel’s outset, however, and what we get instead are scattered remnants of his thoughts, both in the form of first-person internal monologues as well as in fragmentary letters that he compulsively jots off in a notebook, but never actually posts. These epistles are one of the many techniques Bellow employs to great effect.

I love this book and, I believe, it houses one of the finest 100-page intervals in all of American literature: Herzog is sitting by himself on a train, fleeing into the countryside for an escapist holiday. He mentally discusses with himself his current situation (periods of narration marked by the use of “I”) while the more objective narrator (never identified in the book) also comments on Herzog’s thoughts and surroundings. Some of these thoughts range back to previous periods of his life, where both the “I” and the objective narrator fight it out over interpretation of these past events. All the while, Herzog is writing letters (none of which he actually finishes) in a frenzied state to his relatives (dead and alive), famous scholars (dead and alive), and public health officials, his legal team, his loan officer, the president, the mayor, and on and on. Think about, for a minute, the complexity of this type of writing. Bellow italicizes the text of the letters, but because they are so fragmentary, it is often unclear where one letter begins and another ends. He makes little effort to distinguish between Herzog’s “I” and the narrator’s objectively rendered observations. The train passes through a tunnel while  the narration flashes back to an argument Herzog had with his wife. Both settings are described in detail simultaneously. The fact that Bellow pulls all of this off mechanically makes him incredibly talented; the fact that he also infuses almost every page with laugh-out-loud jokes makes him a genius.

While the letters dominate the first half of the book, I disagree, I think, with the novel’s traditional “epistolary” label. As Herzog passes through the events portrayed in the novel, his epistolary outlet dwindles and there’s some symbolic importance in this. As he lands on firmer psychological soil, he has less need for the frenzied outpouring of ideas that dominated the front half of the novel. Indeed, the end of the novel is so satisfactorily and plausibly redemptive that you begin to appreciate Bellow for reasons completely divorced from the letters he puts in Herzog’s head. The Chicago novelist is also a master of dialogue and the prolonged, huge-paragraphed sections of intense introspection are frequently interrupted with hilarious (but also heartfelt, high stakes) conversations between characters. Additionally, much like Mann’s The Magic Mountain, you get the sense that Bellow is using the novel as a vessel in which to convey his own erudition. Herzog is a treasure trove of cultural and literary references and the scope of Bellow’s knowledge is truly impressive. Humor, regardless of the forum, runs throughout.

Given the somewhat epistolary nature of Herzog, however, you can understand what a treat it was to have access to many of Bellow’s personal letters after completing the novel. From a young age, Bellow wrote letters at a prodigious rate and as he grew older, the recipients of his letters included Ellison, Faulkner, Roth, Cheever, Vargas Llosa, and Alan Bloom. The wit and humor evinced in Herzog’s letters are present here as well and, despite his personal reputation, I think I would have very much liked to have a long conversation with Bellow before he died. He was clearly a mentor of young writers (Roth, in particular), the arts in general (where he assembles a writer’s consortium of famous authors), and foreign intellectuals facing persecution from their home governments (he writes eloquently to the New York Times, for example, in defense of Solzhenitsyn, who was getting roughed up by the Soviets). He also underwent a unique political evolution as a writer and citizen, some of which is captured in his letters to other politically minded compatriots.

What other author is Bellow most like? What is a good point of reference in the American literary landscape? This is a difficult question to answer because I think Bellow is a great deal unlike any other American author I’ve read. The range of his cultural references, the complexity of what readers are likely to find on any given page, the ease with which he builds tension before letting it sink beautifully to the ground — these things are uncommon. Despite my recent six-day bout of Bellow, I think I’m not yet finished exploring the man’s work.

Rating: 9 / 10

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Appointment in Samarra

This short and precise novel rings with clarity of purpose and presentation. O’Hara has a goose to cook and, by the end of the novel, he’s not only given us the recipe, but also instructed us in how to prepare it and held the fork to our mouths while we mutter discontentedly about the size of our portion.

John O’Hara / American / 1934 / 251 pages

John O’Hara is no longer a part of the American canon and that is probably an acceptable thing. His contemporaries wrote better melodrama (Fitzgerald) with fewer words (Hemingway) and his forebears were a bit more adept at the psychological analysis (James) of class-based social relations (Turgenev). O’Hara’s most notable novel, An Appointment in Samarra, fairly explicitly lifts different components from each of these literary luminaries. While I have elsewhere praised authors like Julio Cortázar for their ability to synthesize the styles of others, O’Hara’s calculus is more additive than multiplicative: here he has drafted a pristine and pitch-perfect novel that is impressive in technical capacities, but somewhat lacking in its ingenuity. By virtue of being so short in composition, yet so rollicking in its pace, however, the novel is well worth reading.

Appointment quickly conjures up a cast of characters in the first few pages that gets sparsely, but effectively, rounded out with backstories, revealing dialogues, and internal monologues. The couple at the center of the novel are Julian and Caroline English, young thirty-somethings of auspicious backgrounds yet inauspicious futures. Julian manages a car dealership in the small town of Gibbsville (after having forsaken the inheritance of his father’s medical practice) and Caroline seems to have “settled” by wedding him instead of the numerous other well-qualified suitors who presented themselves to her earlier in life. There is also the small-time mobster Al Grecco who spends the novel running liquor and looking after the boss’ mistress, as well as Lute Fliegler who is, perhaps, the only decent person in the book. Julian gets into trouble at a club party when he throws his drink in the face of a friend and over the course of the next two days, the rest of the inhabitants of Gibbsville quickly ice him out as retribution for the act. His friends abandon him, his dealership loses business, and his wife is terribly angry. If you’re at all familiar with the Arabic fable of the “Appointment in Samarra” after which the novel takes its title, then you can add two and two together and figure out where the novel ends up.

But the way in which we arrive at the conclusion is of some interest. From a structural standpoint, the story lines of Lute, Al, and Julian are kept separate from one another until the Christmas party that brings all three characters into the same room. O’Hara also alternates clipped, spot-on dialogue with longer, lyrical passages and mixes present-day plot with once-upon-a-time flashbacks. Other than rounding out the characters of Julian and Caroline, however, it is not immediately clear what role these presentations of backstory play in the development of the novel. O’Hara was first and foremost a short story writer and, in themselves, these portions of the novel serve as excellent set pieces. Additional techniques worth mentioning include O’Hara’s tendency to insulate rather critical events from the narration (thus, we do not see Julian throw the drink, but are only privy to another character’s account of this), entertaining lists presented to substantiate a characterization (such as the long list of philanthropic groups to which Julian’s father belongs), and painfully incoherent and repetitive internal monologues that emerge from nowhere when characters become either highly emotional or highly intoxicated.

In many respects, the writing is a real treat as well. It is laced with dramatic effect and, oftentimes, clever turns of phrase. Better than Hemingway, O’Hara makes use of a wider palette; better than Fitzgerald, he also knows when to cut it short. Oscillating between terse prose and lyrical descriptions, O’Hara occasionally comes up with a sentence or two that leaves the reader smiling in admiration:

“The worst of that drive was that the sun glare on the snow made you smile before you were ready.”

Contrast this with something along the lines of:

“Our story never ends. You pull the pin out of a hand grenade, and in a few seconds it explodes and men in a small area get killed and wounded. That makes bodies to be buried, hurt men to be treated. It makes widows and fatherless children and bereaved parents. It means pension machinery, and it makes for pacifism in some and for lasting hatred in others. Again, a man out of the danger area sees the carnage the grenade creates, and he shoots himself in the foot. Another man had been standing there just two minutes before the thing went off, and thereafter he believes in God or in a rabbit’s foot.”

Appointment allegedly meditates upon the capriciousness of small town politics, but I am not so sure that this is actually the case. The surface-level narrative of a town turning its back on a violator of its norms is a too-ready interpretation of what really transpires. To begin, practically everyone in the novel is rotten: A cheated on B who slept with C who made a pass at D who was found necking E despite the fact that E’s husband was just in the other room, etc. Other inhabitants of the town seem to have effectively been reintegrated into its social ranks despite having accidentally lit buildings on fire, broken the jaws of their friends, defaulted on their loans, and so on. Julian throws a drink in a man’s face and suddenly the town acts as a collective agent that is hellbent on ostracizing him socially and destroying him financially. I don’t buy it, not completely. A more interesting (and, perhaps, accurate) appraisal of what transpires is that Julian had always had something of an “appointment” and that this was merely the catalyzing event. He literally falls apart after the drink incident, but this must be due just as much to his own paranoid perceptions as it is to the actual complications it creates with his friends. Indeed, by the end of the novel, the chagrined recipient of the drink’s contents asks himself why Julian reacted so hopelessly after the incident. The situation wasn’t that awful.

O’Hara lets the novel down gracefully and, if I’m allowed a banal adjective or two, somewhat poetically. The characters we, as readers, feel attached to are given a few final words and those that we don’t particularly care for are subtly left out. We see that the life of the town goes on and we are somewhat comforted with a loose approximation of satisfaction in the outcome. Usually when I finish a novel, I’m a bit scatterbrained, at least initially. Part of the fun of reading great literature is that you’ve got to collect yourself a bit afterward before you can run off and write a review. With this one, however, my reaction was simply: “Right. Well done.”

My point is that Appointment fires on all pistons, so to speak, and works well as a precisely executed first novel. But although O’Hara went on to write another thirteen books (and over 400 short stories, besides) I can’t say that Appointment whets my appetite for these.

Rating: 4 / 10

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