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...
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