John Cheever wrote about suburban alienation, addiction, sexual confusion, loneliness, and self-repression. His protagonist Ezekiel Farragut in Falconer is all of the above.
When I read the novel Falconer (1977) I was reminded of Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein (2000). Ravelstein and Farragut are both flawed characters but they’re presented affectionately. Both novels have a tendency towards loftiness, grand observations, wry humour, and the celebration of a ‘great man’.
Whether you find this kind of literary writing intrusive or delightful, or intrusively delightful, both of these stories feature two quite different academics. Bellow’s Ravelstein is an affectionate portrait of a real life friend, while Farragut is Cheever’s fictionalisation of elements of his own life fused with his knowledge of prisons gained from teaching creative writing to inmates.
When John Cheever wrote the novel he was a recovering alcoholic, having survived a destructive period, been admitted to a clinic, dried out, and then set about writing a novel about a recovering drug addict coming to terms with his sexuality.
Farragut is imprisoned by his own lies, and by society. This becomes a physical prison when he’s incarcerated for murdering his brother. Farragut brutally murdered him, beating him to death with a fire poker, but he maintains that it was an ‘accident’. He learns that prison is full of people who are in there because of accidents and misunderstandings, but cannot relate this fact back to himself.
Farragut’s devotion to his drug habit elevates him above other men, as he sees it. When he later comes to terms with his sexual attraction to men, he embraces the belief that his sexual desires also mark him out as a superior person. Farragut’s self-reinvention, like everything else in his life, is a quasi-religious self-justification.
Falconer chronicles the long decline of the Farragut family, his father’s attempted suicide, the family’s fall from an upper middle-class lifestyle, to a modest one running a petrol station. Farragut’s imprisonment for murder only furthers the family’s decline.
The novel celebrates self-exceptionalism. Farragut should really be presented as a ‘piece of shit’ murderer and a skaghead. Instead, he’s presented as a sensitive, intelligent, aesthete, a connoisseur dining off the fumes of his own grandiosity. In this respect his akin to Humbert Humbert in Lolita a monster unable to see his own monstrous nature.
The hell of prison, becomes a heaven of self-revelation that leads to a rebirth (the escape from hell) and a new life.
The letters Farragut writes while in prison (complaining about his unjust treatment) present a comic record of his chronic self-importance, and the elitist delusion that he’s too good for prison. Ravelstein, on the other hand, is genuinely part of the elite, and he enjoys his place within it, but he is more interested in intellectual rigueur. He has integrity and he finds his own self-indulgence comically absurd.
While Cheever’s short story, ‘The Swimmer’, offers up a near perfect literary gem, Falconer, less successfully I’d argue, is shaped by a mish-mash of incongruous elements that never quite cohere. Cheever is brilliant at describing the suburban world, and the troubled inner landscape, but less successful at delivering the kind of plotted action that genre writers exploit. This is probably the least suspenseful prison escape I can remember. Much like the attempted murder in Bullet Park, it feels like a footnote.
The stories that Farragut hears from his prison circle are powerful in their own way, but they feel like a detour. They remind me of the narrator of Ravelstein, ‘Chick’ switching from his friend’s story to his own ill health. Cheever’s point is that Farragut’s pain is echoed in other people’s stories. While ‘Chick’ in Ravelstein is linking his near death experience to Ravelstein. Regardless, they feel superfluous, and tacked-on.
These novels are about men, and about men loving men. Women are belittled, weirdly peripheral, or irrelevant. Farragut complains about his wife and their marriage. He mentions their physical closeness and his love for her, but it feels like a consolation prize. In Ravelstein ‘Chick’ has a wonderful wife (who he blames for his ill health), but the warmth of his attention is always directed towards Ravelstein.
Falconer has the whiff of the confessional about it. Cheever is a witty and elegant writer but this novel doesn’t quite provide a satisfying story. What does endure, is its simple message: accept who you are, and ‘rejoice’ in being you.