Books: John Cheever’s ‘Falconer’

A millennia and a half before Alain de Botton wrote Consolations of Philosophy, the 6th century Roman senator and philosopher, Boethius, was scratching out Consolation of Philosophy; a set of philosophical musings about how happiness is still attainable in an evil and fickle world. It was an early attempt to resolve philosophically the problem of theodicy, or how evil can exist under God’s dominion. It is also an early example of prison literature; a long and colourful tradition to which one of America’s great writers, John Cheever, attached himself when he published Falconer forty years ago, in 1977, albeit not as an inmate.

Prison is one of those places for going mad or getting philosophical; occupations which are not always mutually exclusive.  It’s an institution where brutal, Darwinian order reigns and the embodied nature of existence asserts itself relentlessly as an inescapable truth. In amongst this malodorous, piss-filled world, sexual drives continue unabated and are in fact heightened – assuming a primary value as a commodity to trade and as a means of control and release. This dictatorship of the flesh and of regimen has of course knock-on effects in the minds of its inhabitants, giving flight to fantastical imaginings, postcard memories and studied delusions – all of which feature prominently in Falconer.

Falconer’s protagonist is Ezekiel Farragut; a college professor and heroin addict who is sentenced to prison at the Falconer State Penitentiary for killing his brother Eben. Ezekiel is married to Marcia with whom he shares a child, Peter.  To say the marriage is strained is an understatement, but not simply because of the position Ezekiel’s fratricidal outburst has put his wife in. As Cheever makes clear early on when flashing back to their pre-prison relationship, Marcia has frustrated lesbian interests while Ezekiel has a latent, bisexual inclination and as such their marriage has become largely asexual. Outside the significant sexual issues, Marcia also blames Ezekiel for her failed artistic career and sub-par material surrounds, all of which manifest in her adopting a maudlin, pernickety disposition.

The blurb on my copy of the book makes exaggerated claims regarding redemption for Ezekiel from his unhappy marriage based on an affair he will have with a fellow prisoner, Jody, but in fact this affair is an episodic event, not the fulcrum of the novel.  While the affair lasts, it lasts, but when Ezekiel’s lover Jody escapes in a daring enterprise involving a cardinal and a helicopter, Ezekiel doesn’t pine for long.

To a large degree the book is an exploration of the damage registered on individuals within a family by their constituent parts as well as the whole. The Farragut’s have a conception of themselves related to the things they do out there in the world but little appreciation or care about the gaping emotional lacunas in their lives. When Ezekiel dreams in jail about his family, despite the fact they are well-to-do and engaged in philanthropic projects, he always envisions them in his dreams from behind; highly-strung, petulant, never finishing things, always leaving somewhere in indignation. The Farragut family donate skinny chickens to poor people in tenements and read George Eliot to blind, snoring octogenarians – foisting their benevolence on a needy that don’t need – but at home, in their private moments rather than in their public displays, it’s misery in excelsis.

These compound miseries are laid out in thick detail. The father goes to the local amusement park “pretending to drink from an empty bottle” and making very public suicidal gestures before being bought home by a teenage Ezekiel. Eben is an alcoholic who is involved in an intense and miserable marriage, with a son in jail for anti-war protests and a daughter who has attempted suicide multiple times.  Ezekiel’s mother is cavalier about her broken relationship with her husband, an open family fact about which there is no attempt at concealment or resolution. Things are broken in the Farragut family but no decisions are made, no-one exercises their agency and things roll along with missing wheels and broken spokes into a black oblivion into which everyone is dragged. Instead of that common motif in literature of individuals suffering as a result of their isolation, each member of the Farragut family draws other members into their pathologies, and so Ezekiel’s alienation is inseparable from and a result of being enmeshed with others (family, prison inmates) to which he has no connection other than the geographical and physical.

Escape and freedom are recurrent themes in the novel. Ezekiel – reflecting perhaps the views of Cheever who felt himself somewhat sequestered in a heterosexual marriage and addiction to alcohol – pursues a sort of negative rather than positive liberty; a freedom from rather than a freedom to. The heroin addiction acts as a sort of bridgehead from misery to…anywhere else.

We learn that Ezekiel started receiving a ‘yellow cough syrup’ in the war, which allowed men to enter into battle at peace. From there he graduated to Benzedrine and beer and from Benzedrine to heroin. Yet there’s no sense here of a tragic fall, Cheever states quite clearly that heroin gave Ezekiel a broader view of the human condition. “Yesterday was the day of anxiety, the age of the fish” writes Cheever “and today, his day, his morning, was the mysterious and adventurous age of the needle.” Cheever depicts Ezekiel’s addiction in its full scope, convulsions in jail as he goes through a methadone program, but also the attractions. He would shoot up before lectures and marvel at the post war world; bridges he drove across like ‘mechanical Holy Ghosts’, the planes he flew on which ‘arced luxuriously’ across rarefied air. Ezekiel saw his addiction as elevating, indeed “a life without drugs seemed in fact and in spirit a remote and despicable point in his past.”

The (sparing) detail of Ezekiel murdering his brother Eben does not feature until the end of the novel but not in order to give us some clarifying motive. After a fight in which Eben states that their father organised a doctor to have Ezekiel aborted, Ezekiel strikes his brother with a fire iron and kills him. However the effect of this abortion ‘revelation’ is muted, tired – not some critical piece of information which stirs Ezekiel’s passions. The abortion story is a known fact in the family and to Ezekiel and the reader already and thus the murder is described in sparse, cursory detail.

As with his heroin addiction and observations about his prison inmates, Ezekiel doesn’t linger in a space where the world exists separately out there as cause while sitting discretely over here is the individual who is the effect. It’s all integrated; time has marked the prison guards’ faces more severely than the captives, Marcia might be living a sexual lie but so is he, the army might have introduced him to opiates but he wilfully graduated to and enjoyed his heroin addiction.

That doesn’t mean that nothing comes in for explanation or criticism. The world of the prison is evidently not a place of redemption, it’s a terminus from which Ezekiel’s lover Jody, and eventually Ezekiel himself, escapes and it houses the occasional petty tyrants you’d expect to inhabit such a place. But like Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless the power attained in relationships within authoritarian institutions is just another sad dimension of alienation that damns all.

Situating a novel within the confines of a prison poses enormous risks, although explanatory memories provide a writer with an enormous out. Yet Cheever, by and large, does not cast back in mawkish fashion for easy and contrastable set-ups – most of the novel remains rooted in the prison environment. But what this tethering allows Cheever to do is to explore the question of memory; what you can remember, what detail you must vanquish for your sanity, how these psychic pressures create uncertain memories and how after swearing to excise memories you can get sucked down its tunnel and recall the most minute details – which we are no longer sure are recollections of actual events or hybrids. This exploration – like that of Ezekiel’s affair with Jody – again is not central, just a component of the story and is not executed in disjointed post-modern fashion. We are situated and aware of where we are most of the time but the uncertain matter of memory is there to illustrate not so much the privations of prison but the passions of this man at a time when he was not imprisoned within a toxic family environment; the small moments of freedom in his life or at least what seems in retrospect to have been so.

Cheever’s short stories like ‘Goodbye, My Brother’ or ‘The Season of Divorce’ also deal with the issue of strained familial relations and this focus on the small detail of life is what led Elmore Leonard to describe Cheever as the ‘Chekhov of the Suburbs’.  Unlike Boethius, Cheever was not concerned to extract an elevated meaning from existence, but when you deal with the all too familiar and painful particulars of family life rather than abstruse and distanced reflections on the cosmos, that will happen. It’s what makes Cheever one of the great writers of the small world which is mainly what we all occupy.

As a fan of Cheever’s short stories I felt compelled to read Falconer and notwithstanding some affecting passages of writing and interesting themes, ultimately I found it a little too dispassionate. While I dislike syrupy novels, Falconer may have over-corrected in order for Cheever to project the idea that there’s no blame in the world and you face the world as you find it. The novel might have benefitted from expanding on the heroin highs and detail of consecrated moments so that we knew Ezekiel was once happy and an agent in his own life – all the better to contrast with the strictures of jail. That being said, it’s an interesting book with engaging ideas and some nice passages of writing.

Score: 7/10

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