(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 746 words.)

Falconer Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 913 words.)

Falconer Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Hailed as “Cheever’s Triumph,” Falconer seemed to surprise many of its reviewers. They were surprised that a writer of short stories could, after three missteps, finally write a “real” novel, especially after the “broken-backed” performance of Bullet Park eight years before. They were also surprised that this “Chekhov of the exurbs,” as one reviewer of The World of Apples (1973) put it, would set his latest fiction in a prison and, more shockingly, write so explicitly about fratricide and homosexuality.

Their surprise points all too well not to any change in Cheever’s writing but instead to the shortcomings on the part of Cheever’s critics and reviewers. The prison setting, as Cheever would point out, functions much as St. Botolphs and fictional suburbs such as Proxmire Manor, Shady Hill, and Bullet Park (as well as Italy and Sutton Place apartment buildings) do as metaphors of the confinement that figures in virtually all of his fiction.

Falconer is not a prison novel in any narrow sense, nor is it about Sing Sing, where Cheever taught in 1971 and 1972. Although it draws on information supplied by his inmates/students, Falconer represents what Cheever called “the sum of my experience.” Just as important, Falconer is not any more “novelistic” than Bullet Park or the Wapshot books, though it is certainly more narrowly and more intensively focused.

Rather, all four employ the same parallel structure, which Cheever also uses in his short stories. Finally, the homosexual theme in Falconer represents more a culmination than a new direction in his work; what is different about Cheever’s handling of homosexuality in Falconer is his forgoing the comedy which previously allowed him to defuse the subject’s personal and thematic explosiveness. Begun during Cheever’s darkest period (not later than 1974), it was completed in a single year-long stretch following his release from Smithers Rehabilitation Clinic and from his addictions to drugs and alcohol.

Falconer differs most from the earlier works in its intensity. Never before, for example, had the close, often strained, occasionally hostile relations between brothers actually ended in death. (“I killed you off in Falconer,” Cheever could jokingly say to Fred a few weeks before the latter’s death on May 30, 1976.) Never before had the contrast between light and dark, spirit and flesh, “the invincible potency of Nature” and one’s deadened sensibility to that potency, been so...

(The entire section is 1063 words.)