The New Yorker goes to the jailhouse. That’s not too surprising. Writing all those masterly New Yorker stories, as moralist in residence, in suburbia, in Ossining, near Sing Sing Prison, about upper-middle-class angst, Cheever must have finally felt obliged to commit one of his characters to prison, to imagine “how it would be.” Fortunately, prison life itself is not finally Cheever’s subject; he seems to assume his readers know all about that, as, in every sense that matters, they do.
Farragut, forty-eight, impulsively kills his brother Eben in a fit of rage suppressed since childhood. The nature of the killing, the brevity of the novel, and Farragut’s “passion for blue sky,” like Meursault’s, may remind one of Camus’ The Stranger. But Cheever’s readers will recall more aptly his interest in relationships between brothers in “Goodbye, My Brother,” one of his best stories, in “Brother,” and in The Wapshot Chronicle and The Wapshot Scandal.
Cheever often delineates the special contradictions and absurdities in the character of the upper-middle-class male. Moving in an ambience of nostalgia and sentimentality, his characters often escape through dreams and prolonged waking fantasies from the monotony of routine lives and settled psyches; those escapes result in nightmare disruptions that are occasions for the stories. Disillusionment, emptiness, ennui, and loneliness break out in tentative or bizarre, joylessly calculated, or impulsive rebellions. Now one of those men, a man of privilege, of the professions (a teacher), a drug addict since his army days, goes to prison, leaving his son and his bisexual wife behind in suburbia.
Fiction, says Cheever, should “reflect the exaltations, the discursiveness, the spontaneity and the pratfalls one finds in a day.” In Falconer, prison-pent feelings, routines, customs, ceremonies, and rituals become parallels that offer perspectives on everyday life in the “free world.” The effect of this novel is suggested in what Auden said of Yeats: “In the prison of his days, teach the free man how to praise.” Imprisonment of the self in one’s own emotions—Cheever has often implied that metaphor; now he turns it around. Either way, the metaphor is trite, but Cheever’s explorations make it richly suggestive. Is Falconer a regular prison, like Sing Sing, or an asylum for the criminally insane? Cheever is generally ambiguous enough to allow either possibility. Falconer sounds like another name for Farragut. What one reviewer said of a certain kind of Cheever story applies to Falconer: “It is as if Marquand had suddenly been crossed with Kafka.”
So, from a fresh perspective, Falconer is another of Cheever’s social satire, comedy-of-manners fables, and prison is a metaphor of the suburban human condition. But more aptly and originally, prison is a metaphor for sexual limbo. Melancholy is the predominant mood of all Cheever’s stories—even when he is being cheerful. He leaves us with a sense of mortality, mutability, and pathos on the verge of collapse into bathos. His style, even in his frequent witty moments, is suffused with sadness, as if written during a hangover the morning after a cocktail party.
Two elements seldom found in a typical New Yorker story dominate Falconer—profanity and raunchy sex, almost entirely onanistic/homosexual. Prison life is an incessant see-saw of tumescence-detumescence. Just as Farragut must have his allotted drug fix every day, he must also have Jody, his young conniving lover, an addiction acquired in prison. Humiliations related to food, shelter, and sex are routine. Nude searches are frequent; the final section begins: “So they were naked again.” Group masturbation in the “Valley” is another haunting metaphor of sexual pathos.
In their imaginative flights and escapes, Farragut and Jody are a sort of composite Icarus figure. Cheever’s richly ambiguous style and his way of presenting characters and events prevent one from being absolutely certain that the escapes literally occur. After a long build-up, Jody escapes in a visiting bishop’s helicopter, disguised as an acolyte; it is a very brief scene that takes one’s breath. The point of view then abruptly shifts from third person, focus on Farragut, to focus on Jody, outside Falconer. Although he usually focuses on one character, Cheever is almost always a modified Trollope-like omniscient narrator. But this shift is disruptive, unless we enjoy the possibility that in the scene outside Falconer, Farragut imagines himself to be his lover Jody.
The progress of Farragut’s own escape is more prolonged, more suspenseful, more imaginative, more darkly comic—he replaces his dead cellmate in a canvas sack. The possibility that both escapes are imagined justifies and gives continuity to Cheever’s point of view strategy. And one feels the exultation Hermann Hesse provides in “My Life: A Conjectural Autobiography,” in which...
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