The most immediate achievement of Falconer was its impact on the career and reputation of John Cheever. Regarded as one of the preeminent short-story writers of the post-World War II generation, Cheever was known for stories that explored with Chekhovian irony and a poetic sense of language the unhappy lives of upper-crust suburbia. By the 1970’s, however, Cheever had edged into obscurity. His brand of traditional psychological realism had fallen out of fashion in an era that emphasized highly experimental narratives. Falconer changed that. It exhibited a darker, grittier Cheever, far from the quiet streets and elegant homes of his fictional suburbia. In Falconer, for the first time in his long career, Cheever confronted in fiction the demons of his private life—his struggle with addiction (to alcohol), his estrangement from his own family (the abortion episode in the novel was apparently autobiographical), and, most significant, his torment over his bisexuality. The intensely personal nature of the subject matter gave the narrative a harrowing immediacy.
Long thought of as “just” a short-story writer, Cheever produced a novel that was lauded for the tight, parable structure it imparted to Farragut’s movement toward redemption, which drew so richly on the moral allegories of Fyodor Dostoevski’s prison narratives. Some criticized Cheever for avoiding the harsher realities of prison homosexuality and guard brutality and for incorporating patently implausible prison escapes so prominently into the narrative. Critics also pointed out that Farragut never expresses remorse or explains in any depth why he killed his brother. Nevertheless, the novel was a best seller. Newsweek, in a cover story, called it a great American novel, and in 2005 Time listed the novel as one of the one hundred best English-language novels written since 1923. His reputation revived, Cheever published his collected stories the following year and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Until his death three years later from cancer, Cheever once again enjoyed a reputation as a major American writer.
Thematically, Falconer—more than any of Cheever’s earlier works—reflects his fascination with the dynamic of the Christian fall and redemption, the tension between flesh and spirit, and the movement from suffering to joy. Himself a lifelong Episcopalian, Cheever had often cast a wary eye on his suburbia, where people unable to tap into the promise of Christian love were savaged by disappointment,...
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