Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746
Falconer is a one-hundred-year-old state prison where Ezekiel Farragut, a professor guilty of fratricide while under the influence of “dangerous drugs,” is being incarcerated for “zip to ten” years. He is addicted to heroin but is currently maintained on methadone.
Ezekiel’s first visitor is his wife, Marcia, but their marriage is very bitter, with Ezekiel mostly acquiescent in the verbal battles. Peter, his son, does not come to see him at any time during the novel. Some of Marcia and Ezekiel’s hostility emerged most notably when he once found her embracing and kissing Sally Midland. As the novel progresses, however, it is clear that Ezekiel’s own homosexuality has been promiscuous and long-standing.
Eben Farragut, Ezekiel’s brother, one is led to suspect, once pushed him out a window, intending to have him fall upon some spear-pointed fence posts, but Ezekiel landed on his knees on the pavement, injuring them so that in prison he claims that an attack by one of the guards has left him crippled. Ezekiel is made into a cruel sideshow by the officers, who want to watch him go through unaided drug withdrawal, and he considers suing for medical mistreatment. The chapter closes with Ezekiel writing letters of complaint to his governor, his bishop, and the “girl he had lived with for two months when Marcia had abdicated and moved to Carmel.”
Pivotal to the plot is Ezekiel’s sexual affair with the highly intelligent Jody, who cleverly decides to forgo his diploma from the Fiduciary University of Banking as it comes into Falconer. When a cardinal comes in a helicopter to award Fiduciary U. diplomas and to offer Holy Communion to a select twenty-five of the prisoners, Jody escapes among the acolytes. Once outside, he is caught by the cardinal in a blatant lie—that he is from “St. Anselm’s,” a place not in the diocese. Then, apparently, Jody has fifteen to twenty minutes of sexual bribery with the cardinal, who allows him to escape, a free man on the city streets as a result of daring intelligence and sexual attractiveness.
When a riot occurs at The Wall, an upstate prison in Amana, the Falconer administration promptly shuts down radios and televisions in order to divert its own prisoners’ discontents. In the month of August, each man has his picture made with a Christmas tree for photographs to be sent to the prisoners’ family and friends. Ezekiel’s cell-mate, Chicken, is unable to send to anyone except Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, impressing Ezekiel again with their lonely plights: “No one at all laughed at this hieroglyph of pain.”
In frustration, Chicken tries to start a riot at Falconer by burning his mattress and calling for everyone not to sleep. The fire is watered down, and Ezekiel falls asleep as usual. Glass Ear, a convict with a hearing aid, for a moment becomes the target of Ezekiel’s efforts to build a radio for news about The Wall, where twenty-eight prison officers are held hostage. Cut off from current news, to pass the time the men in Falconer play cards, masturbate, or smoke marijuana with equal inconsequence. The final assault on the Amana prison leaves at least fifty dead and fifty more dying.
When Chicken becomes fatally ill, Ezekiel aspires to freedom, as though the decay and demise of one man has spurred him to more vigorous pursuit of his own interests. He discovers that he is cured of his drug dependency, his methadone treatments having been surreptitiously turned to placebos a month earlier, news that gives him hope that he might thrive again outside.
Late in the novel it is revealed that the murdered brother had cruelly and petulantly blurted out that Ezekiel’s father had wanted to kill him in the womb, to force Ezekiel’s mother to have an abortion. Despite Ezekiel’s apparently pathological conviction that he was an accidental killer, Eben’s wife, Carrie, reports that he struck Eben eighteen to twenty times with a fire iron, a report confirmed by the examining doctor.
With this final revelation as to the motives for the crime, the death of Chicken, and the lingering example of Jody’s escape, Ezekiel manages to substitute himself for the dead and unclaimed body of Chicken in a body bag, thus getting himself carried out of the prison, into at least a temporary freedom that has the trappings of the joy and transcendence which Ezekiel had earlier disavowed.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913
When Ezekiel Farragut is escorted, shackled to nine other prisoners, into the grim edifice of Falconer State Correctional Facility to begin serving a twelve-year sentence, he is certain that he will die there. Farragut has been convicted of beating his brother to death with a fireplace poker while high on heroin. A forty-eight-year-old university humanities professor who has struggled throughout his adult life with heroin addiction, Farragut sees incarceration as a long-shot chance for penance and redemption. His life of affluence and privilege now seems distant—he is haunted by dreams of beautiful women on exotic island beaches—and when his wife, Marcia, visits him early on, her chilling distance reminds him that that world is now irrevocably lost to him.
Farragut is on a court-mandated methadone program to ease him off heroin, and his initial days in the prison center on getting his fix. His addiction began in the South Pacific jungles when he was a rifleman during World War II. He would drink entire glasses of codeine cough syrup before going into battle. As a college professor, he would shoot up heroin with his colleagues before classes. Farragut describes his generation as a generation of addicts who, facing the cataclysmic implications of atomic holocaust, opted for either alcohol or drugs as avenues to touch a desperate transcendence. Thus, when two spoons hidden in Farragut’s cell by another inmate are discovered during routine inspection and Farragut faces six days of revoked privileges, his greatest worry is over getting his fix, as he will be unable to go to the infirmary. Far from being sympathetic toward his plight, the guards anticipate watching the withdrawal “show”—indeed, Farragut goes into convulsions, beats his head against the floor, and tries to hang himself. When a guard intervenes and cuts him down, Farragut makes a break for the infirmary, only to have a chair smashed over his head. Recovering, he considers suing the state for denying him his methadone. He uses his bed sheet to write three elaborate letters on his own behalf, one to the governor, one to his bishop, and one to a fantasy lover.
Farragut then meets Jody in the prison showers. Jody, a mortgage banker jailed for robbery, is much younger than the professor. The two become lovers, although both inmates and guards warn Farragut that Jody is a conman who uses people. Predictably, Jody abruptly abandons Farragut to pursue another inmate who secures him the chance to escape. When the archbishop of New York comes to the prison to say Mass and confer degrees on eight inmates who have completed a pilot program in banking, Jody disguises himself as an altar server and simply departs with the bishop’s entourage in a state-provided helicopter. Farragut is devastated to be left alone and realizes the deep impress of love (the alternative is The Valley, an old bathroom in the prison where the inmates go to masturbate with each other).
When a riot in a nearby prison causes Falconer to go under a lockdown, with radio and television privileges denied, Farragut, desperate for connection to the outside world, sets about unsuccessfully to build his own radio receiver. To mollify the inmates and provide a distraction to prevent them from rioting themselves, the facility arranges with the help of a local philanthropist to stage Christmas photos for inmates to send to their families. In the stifling August heat, the prisoners are escorted to an old prison classroom, where, next to a brightly lit Christmas tree and stacks of empty boxes wrapped like gifts, they have their photos taken. After the commotion of the lockdown, Farragut realizes that he no longer needs his methadone fix: He is now “clean.”
An older inmate referred to as Chicken Number Two is dying, but the infirmary is filled with flu patients, so he is moved into Farragut’s cell. Farragut at last shares an account of his crime with his new cell mate. He tells the dying inmate about his brother, a callous man who, even as he busied himself doing philanthropic work through a foundation, ignored significant problems with his wife and his own children. One night, after a particularly brutal dinner, Farragut’s brother, in a moment of vodka-induced anger, told Farragut that their father had tried to convince their mother to abort Farragut. Provoked and high, Farragut struck his brother more than twenty times with a fireplace iron.
After he has shared his story with Chicken Number Two, Farragut comforts the old prisoner while he dies. When the infirmary guards leave the burial bag in the cell until morning, Farragut removes the corpse, places it in his cot, and, grabbing a razor, zippers himself into the bag in its place. Attendants carry him out and, in a stroke of unanticipated luck (the hearse has been delayed while it gets an oil change), Farragut cuts himself out of the bag with the razor, substitutes rocks to mimic his weight, and simply walks away from Falconer. He walks into the nearest city, where he chances upon a stranger at a bus stop. The stranger, who has just been evicted from his apartment and is on his way to live with his sister, takes an interest in Farragut, pays his bus fare, gives him his phone number, and invites him to share an apartment. As Farragut gets off the bus, walking now in a cleansing rain, he feels for the first time the splendid release of joy.