John Cheever Essay - Cheever, John (Vol. 8)

Cheever, John (Vol. 8)

Cheever, John 1912–

American short story writer and novelist, Cheever draws successfully from his middle-class suburban experience to produce a fiction that paints a disturbing picture of what is wrong with upwardly-mobile America. His major thesis is the difficulty in establishing and upholding a moral identity in a society where family life and the community are disintegrating. Cheever was awarded the National Book Award in 1958 for The Wapshot Chronicle. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Ezekiel Farragut, the hero of … Falconer, inhabits a religious and social topography roughly bounded by the contours of his name. Voices of Old Testament prophets reverberate down the corridors of his psyche, while, outwardly, he displays both the polish and the paranoia we have come to expect from Cheever's heroes….

As the novel opens, the state is in the act of appending something new to Farragut's name—the number 734-508-32. He is being incarcerated in Falconer Prison for a crime of which he feels himself to be innocent, the murder of his brother. With this fact Cheever takes his largest risk, for aside from the sheer implausibility of it, two other problems arise out of [this] Cheever novel…. Readers are liable to expect from it either a social document, a protest of some kind over the horrors of our penal system, or, more typically, a Cheever portrait of an alienated upper-middle-class American simply translated behind bars. Both elements are in fact present, but it would be a pity to come away from this book having got no more from it than that. Those who suspend their disbelief will find that, in Falconer, John Cheever has written a stunning meditation on all the forms of confinement and liberation that can be visited upon the human spirit….

[Cheever] has incorporated into the novel a symbolic richness usually associated with densely imaged poetry or the best crafted short story. In this and in his willy-nilly coupling of the sacred and profane he is reminiscent of John Donne. (p. 374)

To say that the novel proceeds in symbolic or metaphysical terms is not to deny that the flesh is involved; it is, and often in the grossest way. At Falconer the flesh is always being aroused or abused, subdued or gratified, either in reality or in recollection. Terrible scenes of cruelty, degradation and lust take place. However, when we look at these fleshly encounters of Farragut's and those of his fellow inmates, Cuckold, Jody, Chicken Number Two and the rest, the quality that distinguishes the greater portion of them is, curiously, purity…. The determined air of normalcy, of heterosexuality, in all of the attitudes displayed in [many] passages accounts for much of their appeal, and explains why they are to so large a degree successful in breaking down the reader's own prejudices. (pp. 374-75)

Neither the possibility that these encounters are mere lonely substitutes for heterosexual love, nor the sense in which they manifest themselves as brotherly—or, at least on some level—familial feeling is allowed to obscure their darker components of narcissism and, even, necrophilia.

The theology … throughout the novel is interesting and sophisticated. Sin is interpreted as a radical failure of love and a consequent enthrallment (a kind of imprisonment) to fear. Love casts out fear, as the evangelist tells us, and one of the processes Farragut is undergoing in the Falconer "Correctional Facility" is nothing less than the rehabilitation of his ability to love. More than anything else, this accounts for the softening light that washes over so many of the prison scenes.

One particular measure taken by Cheever bears remarking in this matter of the book's strange and winning purity: it represents, I believe, both an instance of legitimate poetic license and a profound theological principle on Cheever's part. Though most readers will not consciously notice that it is missing—there is more than enough obscene and scatological language to produce convincing replicas of prison argot—Falconer contains not a single instance of blasphemy. Farragut, a methadone addict, is once heard to cry out, in the midst of a withdrawal agony, for someone to "Get me my fix, for Jesus Christ's sake!" But no man who describes himself in a letter to his bishop as "a croyant" can be supposed at that moment to be taking the name of the Lord in vain.

Cheever says nothing directly that would explain his decision to delete this prominent feature of the vernacular. One can only suppose that he considers swearing unsavory, and that he knows—as he tells us that Farragut doesn't—"what importance to give unsavory matters. They existed, they were invincible, but the light they threw was, he thought, unequal to their prominence." Cheever, as narrator, goes on to note that what is unsavory "only seemed to reinforce Farragut's ignorance, suspiciousness and his capacity for despair." By daring to eschew that kind of unsavory matter here, Cheever may actually be striving for the opposite—a salutary effect upon all of us. (p. 375)

[It] will be apparent from what has been said so far that this is no ordinary novel. Better say it is a new version of an old story form, a parable…. His final word to us is an admonition to "Rejoice." Falconer is truly a parable for our times. (p. 376)

Janet Groth, "Cheers for Cheever," in Commonweal (copyright © 1977 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), January 10, 1977, pp. 374-76.

[Exile] and estrangement [have] always been present in Cheever's fiction, from the early stories on. But in the beginning Cheever characters appeared to be exiled merely by their own errors or passions or foolishness…. They yearned always after some abstraction symbolized by the word "home," after "tenderness," after "gentleness," after remembered houses where the fires were laid and the silver was polished and everything could be "decent" and "radiant" and "clear."

Such houses were hard to find in prime condition. To approach one was to hear the quarreling inside. To reach another was to find it boarded up, obscene with graffiti, lost for taxes. There was some gap between what these Cheever people searching for home had been led to expect and what they got, some error in expectations, and it became increasingly clear that Cheever did not locate the error entirely in the hearts of the searchers.

For a while he appeared to be locating this error in the "modern world," and he did in fact make extravagant ironic use of the fractures peculiar to postwar America. The demented verities and sweet wilds of the family farm had been tamed into suburbs: Shady Hill, Bullet Park, Proxmire Manor, where jobs and children got lost. Discharged housekeepers and abandoned secretaries reappeared as avenging angels. Your neighbor might take the collection at early communion on Sunday, but he might also take a billfold from your bedroom on Saturday night. So might you. Your child might be beautiful and fragrant, but one morning that child might be too sad to get up. So might you. Guns kept at home tended to get fired. Planes going home tended to crash. (pp. 1, 22)

I suspect that [a] secret wish to read novels in which the protagonist is an improved version of the reader—a kind of point man in history's upward spiral and someone you might want for dinner—is far from dead in fancy circles. These readers see through Cheever's beautiful shams and glossy tricks, past his summer lawns and inherited pearls, and what they see is this: a writer who seems to them to be working out, quite stubbornly and obsessively, allegorical variations on a single and profoundly unacceptable theme, that of "nostalgia," or the particular melancholia induced by long absence from one's country or home.

"Nostalgia" is in our time a pejorative word, and the emotion it represents is widely perceived as retrograde, sentimental and even "false." Yet Cheever has persisted throughout his career in telling us a story in which nostalgia is "real," and every time he tells this story he refines it more, gets closer to the bone, elides another summer lawn and pulls the rug from under another of his own successful performances. He is like a magician who insists on revealing how every trick was done. Every time he goes on stage he sets for himself more severe limits, as if finally he might want to engrave the act on the head of a pin. "The time for banal irony, the voice-over, is long gone," reflects Ezekiel Farragut, the entirely sentient protagonist of Cheever's new novel, "Falconer." "Give me the unchanging profundity of nostalgia, love and death." In this sense of obsessive compression and abandoned artifice "Falconer" is a better book than the "Wapshot" novels, a better book even than "Bullet Park," for in "Falconer" those summer lawns are gone altogether, and the main narrative line is only a memory. (p. 22)

Cheever has a famous ear, but he is up to something more in "Falconer" than a comedy of prison manners. Events are peculiar…. On its surface "Falconer" seems at first to be a conventional novel of crime and punishment and redemption—a story about a man who kills his brother, goes to prison for it and escapes, changed for the better—and yet the "crime" in this novel bears no more relation to the "punishment" than the punishment bears to the redemption. The surface here glitters and deceives. Causes and effects run deeper….

Of all those Cheever characters who have suffered nostalgia, Farragut is perhaps the first to apprehend that the home from which he has been gone too long is not necessarily on the map. He seems to be undergoing a Dark Night of the Soul, a purification, a period of suffering in order to re-enter the ceremonies of innocence, and in this context the question of when he will be "clean" has considerable poignance. As a matter of fact it is this question that Cheever has been asking all along—when will I be clean was the question on every summer lawn—but he has never before asked it outright, and with such transcendent arrogance of style…. In this way "Falconer" is a kind of contemplation in shorthand, a meditation on the abstraction Cheever has always called "home" but has never before located so explicitly in the life of the spirit. (p. 24)

Joan Didion, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 6, 1977.

Falconer is a surprising book, far stranger even than Bullet Park, which was, in its juxtapositions and denouement, unsettling enough…. [Cheever] has succeeded in writing a story in which the grossly tangible details of prison life interact with a series of vividly narrated but often wildly improbable events to create what seems to be the author's private version of hell….

Except for one brief episode dealing with the escape of another prisoner, the novel concentrates exhaustively upon Farragut's present and past experiences, both as he himself perceives them and as they are unflaggingly elucidated for us by the author. We are led to contemplate as well as share the outrage of a sensitive, cultivated, and wounded man who, believing himself to be essentially innocent, is subjected to the stupefying routine and progressive degradation of this new environment….

Though the raw material for social protest abounds here, Falconer is a novel with other intentions. I doubt that prison reform occupies a very high place on Cheever's list of social priorities. Even the uprising at Attica (called "Amana" in the novel), which takes place during Farragut's confinement, serves chiefly to show the fearfulness and demoralization of the guards at Falconer. Cheever's focus is upon behavior, idiosyncrasy, sudden acts of kindness, bizarre happenings, the aesthetic and other adaptive responses to a world of automatically flushing toilets, blaring radios, and diminished egos….

It is the tonality, even more than the subject matter, that distinguishes Falconer from Cheever's previous fiction. The prevailing atmosphere is one of extreme sordidness, relieved only momentarily by the old Cheever whimsicality, tenderness, and insouciance. Cheever's stylistic sprightliness is undiminished, but the intrusion of a coarsened vocabulary often produces grotesque effects….

Yet the continuities with the earlier fiction are almost as striking as the obvious departures from it. From the beginning Cheever's short stories and novels have been concerned with the precariousness of life, with the trap doors in the polished flooring of Sutton Place apartments, with the criminal possibilities of Shady Hill and Bullet Park. The gracefulness of Cheever's manner, his trickiness, the snobbish appurtenances, his lyrical and descriptive powers have all to some degree disguised—or at least made amusing—the role played by hateful and murderous impulse in the lives of his characters. (p. 3)

The homosexual emphasis in Falconer will perhaps startle some Cheever readers accustomed to his frequent and often lyrical celebrations of heterosexual sportiveness. But a close look at his fiction during the last decade reveals numerous occurrences of homosexual material—occurrences to which the straight characters invariably respond with fear or distaste…. A dramatic shift in expressed affect has taken place—a shift that simultaneously links Falconer with the earlier books and distinguishes it from them.

Despite the differences in subject matter and tone, Cheever's approach to narration remains much the same. He continues to manipulate his characters highhandedly, while commenting brightly upon their milieu, motives, and behavior. At its best, this distancing achieves the effect of inspired gossip. The surface is always lively and interesting, full of arresting detail, full of surprises. The commentary is usually intelligent and entertaining enough to compensate for its intrusiveness. But the Cheever manner, so often brilliantly successful in his short stories, entails disadvantages in his longer fiction. In the two Wapshot books, surfeit results from the existence of too many cleverly narrated episodes—a tedium not uncommon in the reading of long, semi-picaresque novels. In Bullet Park and especially in Falconer, both shorter and more tightly organized books, there is, I think, an unresolved conflict between the explosive potential of the material and the very "brightness" of its manipulation.

Cheever quite arbitrarily makes Farragut a professor and then provides nothing to make such an occupation credible. While Farragut's response to drug-deprivation is unforgettably vivid, the fact that he is an addict in the first place strains belief; certainly it is lent no support by the shallow psychologizing of the commentary or the claim that "His generation [Farragut is forty-eight] was the generation of addiction." Even Farragut's ingenious escape supplies not so much an ending to the novel as a nimble cop-out, for Farragut's future—to say nothing of his continued freedom—is quite simply unimaginable in view of what has been established about him. Cheever seems perfectly aware of this frivolity and half mocks it.

I am not suggesting that Cheever should struggle into a straitjacket of psychological realism, but I do wish to convey my strong sense that he has not yet discovered a fictional mode that can contain the powerful stuff with which he is now dealing. Still, whatever its shortcomings as fully achieved literary art, Falconer compels attention as the darkened realization of much that has been implicit in Cheever's fiction all along. It is an engrossing short novel, a notable addition to his now extensive oeuvre. (pp. 3-4)

Robert Towers, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), March 17, 1977.

[Falconer] defies literal interpretation. It is a story in the classic Cheever mold, both bizarre and touchingly real, absurdly beautiful.

Prison is a familiar metaphor for hell, and in Falconer Cheever toys skillfully with Christian symbolism. But the novel's most dramatic appeal arises from more potent stuff than intellectual gamesmanship. Loss of freedom is a nightmare that haunts us all, springing from some incalculable subconscious sense of guilt. Cheever confronts the nightmare and artfully lays it to rest. (p. 91)

Amanda Heller, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1977 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), April, 1977.

A John Cheever character has wandered into the wrong novel and doesn't know how to get out. Where am I? Here, Céline's hospital; there, Kafka's penal colony; yonder, some William Burroughs; back aways, the Bible, with God in a bad mood and the sun-crazed desert prophets explaining why. Whatever happened to suburbia?

Certainly Ezekiel Farragut is a Cheever character—an upper-middle-class Wasp with marital problems….

Cheever people are often punished for not having wanted more boldly. Still: "Almost everyone I love has called me crazy." And that's typical, too. Cheever people care with such passion for the ordinary—"the chords, the deep rivers, the unchanging profundity of nostalgia"—that they seem wacky, wrong for this world, waiting for an accident.

From previous experience with Cheever … one expects that Ezekiel's luck, or charm, will run out. Gusts of chance—in Cheever country, chance is a sort of secular substitute for evil—will unmoor him. He will consult himself, like a compass: surely inside this mess of memories and desires there is a moral pole toward which the knowing needle swings and points. Something will be required of him: an extravagance, a surprise, a rhapsody, a proof.

But hold on. Ezekiel is also a heroin addict. Ezekiel murders his own brother with a fire iron. Ezekiel is sent to prison, gets beaten up, has a homosexual love affair, and busts out. Wow…. [The] Falconer Correctional Facility [is] a long way from Shady Hill, St. Botolphs, and Bullet Park. It is as if our Chekhov—and some of us believe Cheever to be our Chekhov—had ducked into a telephone booth and reappeared wearing the cape and leotard of Dostoevsky's Underground Man. Modernism, the literature of fire alarms, has caught up with him.

It's not that violence and death have been missing from Cheever in the past. (p. 88)

But always in the past these have seemed to be accidents, arranged so as to throw into relief the fragility of all that Cheever holds most dear: the sanctuaries of love…. He seemed to be reminding us of how foolish we were in our tacit claim "that there had been no past, no war—that there was no danger or trouble in the world."

He did his reminding in a prose at once evocative and dreamy. (Does it still need saying that the English language is lucky John Cheever writes in it?) The accidents could be thought of as dreams, to which the dreamer responded as if "to a memory that I had not experienced."…

Not so inside the walls of Falconer. The violence and death are real. (pp. 88-9)

Outside the walls, the sweet prose is still at work. Cheever hasn't forgotten how. There are flashbacks—flares, really, or grenades—by whose bright brief light we see something of Ezekiel's soulscape….

And there are swatches of that surpassing tenderness, that respect for the intimacy and the mystery of men and women together, that Cheever alone among male American writers seems capable of producing: Ezekiel's letter to his girlfriend, "exalted by the diagnostics of love"; his safari for fox grapes in the hoarfrost to prepare his wife's favorite jelly; notations on the loneliness of single men in Chinese restaurants; the irony of Christmas; rain dripping from gun towers….

Cheever has left Shady Hill in a black van through the twilight zone and into hell. (He has, in fact, taught at Sing Sing.) Inside Falconer, Ezekiel is unknowingly cured of his addiction, subdues the past and, with the help of a miracle, escapes—just as, with the help of an earlier miracle, his lover Jody had escaped. This strikes me as being at least one miracle too many, especially as it comes on top of several improbabilities…. But what was implicit in Bullet Park—the imagery of a kind of muscular Episcopalianism—runs rampant in Falconer. Ezekiel's durance vile is full of miracles and prophets, mechanical and plastic Holy Ghosts, ciboriums and chalices, the Eucharist, and "fallen men" in "the white light" beyond redemption. And Ezekiel himself is almost literally resurrected from the dead, bloody but unbowed.

Is this symbolism necessary? I'm not sure. It sent me to the Bible to read up on Ezekiel (which in Hebrew means "God strengthens"), and God was in a bad mood in that book, wrathing at the mouth, tossing around the twelve tribes, rattling dry bones. It also sent me to William Butler Yeats to read up on falcons: "Turning and turning in the widening gyre … the centre cannot hold…. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." I'm still not sure. And yet a certain anarchy is proposed.

Into what does Ezekiel escape? Into, apparently, an idea of love not as a sanctuary but as a relinquishing. Sanctuaries are prisons…. Out of extremity, Cheever seems to be saying, emerges an irreducible and persevering me, and a laissez-faire economy of the emotions….

Sentence by sentence, scene by scene, Falconer absorbs and often haunts. As a whole, it confounds. Shady Hill has been reversed, turned inside out like a glove or one of those stars that ends up, under pressure of gravity, a black hole in space: the cell. And like a black hole, it transmits mysterious signals. It seems more asserted than felt, more willed than imagined, and an odd valedictory tone predominates, as if everything must be left behind in order for the self to forage for a new connection…. It is sad … that one of the few novelists who knows how to write about the dialectic between men and women (and their children) with a gentle seriousness, a palpable joy, should have made himself a stranger. (p. 89)

John Leonard, "Crying in the Wilderness," in Harper's (copyright © 1977 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the April, 1977 issue by special permission), April, 1977, pp. 88-9.

Though pocked with obscenities, Cheever's language [in "Falconer"] tends to be well-behaved, even dull; there are lamenting, generalizing, run-on sentences, but little of the plangent sorrowing grace that was so affecting when Cheever was back home on the darkening green, far from this sensational material. "Falconer" is forceful in its deliberately sordid way; but it is finally unpersuasive. It is rare for a writer to take such risks, to try to reach for more than he grasps, and Cheever is a serious, honorable artist; but the universal praise his novel has received is wishful thinking: the book feels forced. (pp. 3, 52)

Richard Locke, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 17, 1977.

Falconer is in another country altogether, yet its story is told by our own nonchalant, witty Cheever. As only he could, he drops small, perfect tales drawn from his hero's and the other prisoners' memories….

Since Cheever clearly did not intend his Falconer to be realistic, perhaps he was using the prison walls to make us feel fully what it is to be free. In one scene Farragut peers down from his cell window at the two steps leading out of the prison and marvels at the unmindful way visitors emerge into the open….

Cheever goes further: Without freedom, life is still infinitely precious. The dying Chicken II, totally friendless, about to leave the emptiest existence on earth, says that it has been "like a party, even in stir—even franks and beans taste good when you're hungry, even an iron bar feels good to touch, it feels good to sleep …".

The life Cheever is celebrating—make no mistake about this—is a life strictly without women. Confinement may, in fact, be a sort of wish-fulfillment. Only in prison can a man be safe from that baneful figure in so many Cheever stories, the vixen wife. Gifted with a talent for inventive, capricious, emasculative cruelty, she has somehow gained a hold over her husband from which he cannot free himself.

The message was not immediately apparent in Cheever's earlier work, partly because it fitted into what was thought to be the New Yorker formula: First dig your pit, then push your character into it. Marriage was so universal a state that its unhappiness could be taken as a metaphor for the sadness of the human condition. Now, though, there are "alternative life styles." Cheever, in his own sly way, may be offering one. (p. 15)

Hope Hale Davis, in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), April 25, 1977.

Falconer is a book about prison life, always lively but in places a little sloppy, sometimes comic and occasionally rather contrivedly horrific. Mr Cheever is the quintessential New Yorker writer, with lashings of style and a good deal of fancy, but not very much awareness of how most people actually live and behave….

The approach to prison experience is realistic, in the sense that food and cell conditions are described, the other prisoners are credible characters, homosexual relations develop. There is no pretence at realism, however, in the depiction of Farragut or in several of the incidents described, and the contrast between manner and material cannot be other than jarring. We would like to believe what we are told, but Mr Cheever does not encourage us to do so….

Falconer teaches again the endlessly unlearned lesson that to mix realism and fantasy is almost always not only dangerous but damaging. Almost all the prison scenes are extremely vivid, whether they concern a slaughter of the prison cats, Farragut's homosexual experiences, or the excitement roused by a prison revolt nearby. They have a power, and a depth of feeling, that is rare in Mr Cheever's work. On the other hand the flashbacks are generally unconvincing, and the book depends on them to show the origins and nature of Farragut. They are also marred by occasional verbal excesses of a highly literary kind.

Julian Symons, "Soul behind Bars," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 8, 1977, p. 821.