by Perry Meisel
Loneliness has been a staple theme of John Cheever's deceptively modest art over the years, but never before has it been rendered with the combination of toughness and compassion that Cheever brings to it in his new and long-awaited novel, FALCONER (Knopf, $7.95). Now 64, Cheever is beginning to sum up, and what he has to say is sobering and impressive. Gone are the half-humorous tales of the suburbs, and in their place rise the grim walls of Falconer prison, where Cheever's new hero, Ezekiel Farragut, expects to die.
Farragut is a convicted murderer, and Cheever enumerates the details of his life behind bars with the same precision he normally brings to the interpretation of daily life in more familiar surroundings. Instead of a wife who escapes to nude thrills in Greenwich Village, Farragut has a homosexual lover who escapes to his family in the Midwest. Instead of Charlie Mallory's "geometry of love," Farragut has the "contrite geometry" of jailhouse grass-cutting. And instead of swimmer Ned Merrill's belated realization that his house is boarded up and empty, Farragut knows from the start - as Cheever never tires of reminding us - that his own predicament is one of radical dislocation and exile.
Despite Farragut's conviction for murder, though, the reader rarely feels that Cheever's hero belongs in jail or that his outlaw status is particularly real. This, of course, seems to be Cheever's point; imprisonment is our general condition, since all of us, like Farragut, live behind "a barrier of sorrow" between ourselves and the world. Falconer's ultimate import, in other words, is metaphysical, and those readers who expect to find politics here will discover that the book has nothing at all to do with "prison reform." ("Best sellers," writes Cheever with no small irony, "are written about prison reform.") Nor is Cheever's ruling metaphor of confinement as worn-out a conceit as it may seem to be, largely because Cheever interrogates it through so many layers of significance and complication.
Except for a brief inter-chapter that narrates the escape of Farragut's lover, Jody, Cheever tells the story entirely from Farragut's point of view. Although Falconer is Cheever's fourth novel, the single focus is something new in his work. Indeed, Falconer is his first book with only one hero, and it should serve as proof that Cheever is fully capable of sustaining the kind of lengthy, disciplined narrative that many longtime admirers of his stories, among them John Updike, have suggested to be no longer within his powers - or at least within his concerns - as a novelist.
To be sure, such a suspicion may have been justified on the evidence of a career that tends to match every novel with almost two books of short stories, although Cheever's circumspect readers also point to the episodic quality of the novels themselves as indications that he is a pieceworker even there. This may be true of The Wapshot Scandal (1964) - even though Hammer's narrative in Cheever's last novel, Bullet Park (1969), plainly demonstrates his considerable powers in concentrating a fairly lengthy story within the consciousness of a single character.
Hence Cheever's success in Falconer should not be ascribed solely to the new choice of subject. Moreover, despite the prison setting, Farragut is a predictable enough denizen of Cheever's world. Prior to his conviction, he is, like a host of the author's characters before him, a well-to-do commuter (Hudson Division, of course) whose wife averts her face when he goes to kiss her. Farragut, 48, is also a drug addict - not just a pill-popper like Nailles in Bullet Park, but a real, honest-to-God heroin freak. What makes him unique among Cheever's characters, though, is his peculiar situation in the eyes of the law. When the book begins, we find him entering the main gates of Falconer prison. When the story closes, we find him being carried out through a side entrance, wrapped for escape in another man's shroud.
It is a neat allegory, and, besides its Christian reveberations of fall, trial, and redemption, it packs a keen psychological drama. Farragut's crime is fratricide, and he kills his older brother, Eben, in an attempt to rescind the cruel and shocking news that Eben imparts to him in the course of a violent quarrel: "He had an abortionist come out to the house. Your own father wanted you to be killed. . . . He loved me, but wanted you to be killed."
From the novel's overtly Christian point of view Farragut wins his escape through deeds. (This comes at the end of the book, well after Jody has himself escaped - as part of a visiting bishop's entourage.) It is Farragut's simple and instinctive kindness toward the oldest and loneliest of his blockmates, Chicken, that is directly responsible for his redemption. When Chicken takes ill, Farragut washes the old man's wrinkled and tatooed body and brings him into his own cell, where he cradles him in his arms until he expires. Once Chicken is dead, it dawns on Farragut to exchange places with him in the burial sack, at which point the shroud of death is instantly transformed into a womb of rebirth.
But if Farragut's release leaves Cheever with a completed novel, it leaves Farragut himself with nowhere to go - his wife has divorced him and his brother, of course, is dead. There are, alas, no "fields of paradise on the other side of the wall," as Farragut once believed. This, however, is precisely what he has learned by the book's close. It is the exact price of his ransom to realize that life is to be valued not for its alleged freedom, but for the confinements it places upon us. Hence Farragut is finally able to throw off the "torpor" that is both the consequence and the cause of the various addictions, crimes, and irresponsibilities of his past life. Responsibility alone makes up the happy confinements known as freedom and love.
Unfortunately, all this smacks of Milton's God, although I am pleased to say that Cheever has written a book that is after all much bigger than its theology. To be sure, Cheever's Christianity is thoroughly secular, and its absolute dismissal of a "paradise" anywhere in sight should also make it clear that his famous nostalgia for nature, youth, and the past is little more than a gentle fiction of its own at this point in his career (if, indeed, it was ever really more than that). Nor should one neglect the related fact that Cheever's humanism here joins Bellow's in maintaining a vigilant stance against the Wastelanders, whose logic, however inadvertently, requires some kind of paradise both before and after the historical aberration known as the modern age.
Cheever, however, is by no means locked into dangerous myths of pure feeling like those that accompany Bellow's brand of humanism, and it is the peculiar virtue of all his work that a tough-minded "cybernetics" - to use the vocabulary of the Wapshot novels - always accompanies and balances whatever excesses his piety for "man" might produce. Moreover, this second current in Cheever's work is capable of adducing the same conclusions about life that are to be found in his humanism, but it has the advantage of removing naive elements of freedom and recognition by focusing on forces in existence far more determining than the conscious plight of a single individual like Farragut.
Farragut's attempt to maintain his identity in prison allows Cheever to uncover structures of the self long hidden by the easy assumptions we make about selfhood in normal society. Farragut depends on his memories and his dreams to keep his personality intact while he languishes in Cellblock F. But these threads of identity are far less secure than he expects them to be. When they snap, Farragut is faced with what Cheever calls "the absolute experience of alienation": "he did not know who or where he was, that the uses of the toilet he faced were completely mysterious, and that he could not understand a word of the book he held in his hands. He did not know himself. He did not know his own language."
It is not by accident that Farragut's "absolute alienation" is figured as his alienation from language. Memory and dreams have always been cast as a set of linguistic structures in Cheever's work (indeed, they provide the organizing metaphors for both Wapshot novels), and their "controlled and repeated designs" constitute a map of the self in which - or on which - Farragut tries constantly to locate himself. To the extent that prison robs him of his ability to read the map's coordinates, Farragut is in exile from his own being. Thus his gradual adaptation to the grayness and absence of life in jail rests largely on his ability to read in whatever form he can what Cheever calls the "contour" and the "geometry" of life as we know it. "The contrite geometry of grass-cutting pleased him. To cut the grass one followed the contour of the land. To study the contour of the land . . . was to study and read the contour of the neighborhood, the county, the state, the continent, and to study and read the contour of the planet was to study and read the nature of its winds as his old father had done, sailing catboats and kites. Some oneness was involved, some contentment."
Nor is Farragut at all unique in having his selfhood cast by Cheever as a geometrical set of signifying "designs." Although Farragut feels that his jeopardized birth sets him apart from his brother, who, unlike himself, has enjoyed a full and natural entrance into the world, it is nonetheless true that both children "had learned to crawl on the hieroglyphs woven into the Turkey rugs" of their childhood. That is to say, childhood itself seems to involve some common grounding, not in nature or biology, but in the "designs" - the hieroglyphs or texts - that constitute even the earliest experiences of the infant and that persist forever as a "tracery" in the rhetoric of memory.
Sexuality is part of the "design," too - Farragut knows, for example, that he is horny because the "honeycomb" of his "braincells" "interprets" his otherwise "speechless genitals." Cheever even tatooes Chicken's body from head to foot so as to make the flesh itself a cluster of written inscriptions or "tracery." And if this appears to be too radical a reading of Cheever's novel, one has only to turn to Cheever's first description of Farragut's threatened abortion, which is made specifically and emphatically in terms of writing and texts: "his father, having written Farragut's name with his cock, had tried to erase the writing."
Cheever's rhetoric, in other words, builds up a graphic representation of identity as a set of texts or designs in which the subject is located by coordinates or positions as though in a network or on a map. Like Cheever's secular Christianity, these "cybernetic" structures maintain an inevitable separation between man and some projected "paradise" in nature or in pure feeling. They also maintain a separation between what we know and what we are that does not square entirely with the fact of Farragut's recognition of his human responsibilities.
As it turns out, the entire structure of Farragut's character may be erected on a scandalous lie - Farragut, after all, knows of his threatened abortion only through the words of his brother. Hence all his attempts at self-location proceed according to determinations or plottings that may or may not be historically true, but which function as his true history nonetheless. Where that leaves Farragut as a responsible agent is plainly open to question.
In any case, Cheever's obsession with inscriptions, emblems, hieroglyphs, and designs tends to subvert Falconer's basic premises. The novel interrogates the concept of imprisonment and finds the notion more problematic than we think it is. Farragut's life behind bars is precisely life without bars - life without the bars, grids, structures, and designs that provide us with our sense of location. From this point of view, imprisonment makes no sense at all since, as a notion, it depends on the difference between inside and outside, between what is confined and what is free; a difference that the book calls directly into question.
Cheever is rather literal about this: "At Falconer the walls and the bars had sometimes seemed to vanish, leaving [Farragut] with a nothingness that would be worse." In Cheever's view, imprisonment is in fact a snugness, and the sad but fraternal life of the inmates in Cellblock F presents in bald form the kind of security that a character like Nailles in Bullet Park finds in the confinement of his joyous monogamy. It is also from this snugness that Farragut derives whatever feeling he may have for Chicken - which allows him to take upon himself the responsibility that eventually wins his escape.
At this point the novel's two currents - one humanist, one cybernetic - meet to generate the complexities of Falconer as a whole. Cheever's two worlds in the narrative are not, after all, in conflict but in harmony, and it is a measure of his achievement to have built a text sturdy enough - like the prison itself - to reconcile the rival currents of much contemporary fiction and criticism - humanist and affective on the one hand, structural and rhetorical on the other. Moreover, if we need a measure of how absurd our ethnic categories for fiction really are, we have one here. It is Bellow who resembles Cheever as a humanist far more that the goyische Pynchon does, and it is Pynchon who resembles Cheever in his non-Christian or cybernetic profile perhaps more than any writer except Philip Roth.
Finally, if Falconer is composed of converging texts - one humanist, one cybernetic - there is a correlative for it, too - and that is the prison itself. (The idea of duplication is everywhere - in homosexuality, in Farragut's prison job of typing dittos, in his twinlike resemblance to his brother.) With its inexhaustible series of cells and corridors and with the alphabetical array of its compartments (Cellblocks A, B, C. . . . F), the prison, too, is a lexical grid much like the novel's own network of language. Nor is this merely implicit in Cheever's book. "F stands for fucks, freaks, fools, fruits, first-timers, fatasses like me, phantoms, funnies, fanatics, feebies, fences, and farts," says Tiny, Farragut's turnkey; and the name "Falconer" itself - another derivation of the F, like Farragut's own name - is presented in all its "declensions" (names, dates, history, symbols) inscribed above the "escutcheon" nailed to the prison's gate.
The real testament to Cheever's mastery of language, though, lies in the abundance of things his art will continue to signify well after its time. C, after all, stands for Cheever, Christianity, cybernetics, Chicken, convict, confinement, copy.
Originally published in The Village Voice, March 14, 1977