Falconer (John Cheever)

So here then is John Cheever’s great penal novel. Or should I say, penile novel. Yes, yes, the pun is too obvious to be anything but unfunny. But it’s just shouting from the eaves to be thrust into the spotlight. This is primarily because one cannot turn a page without finding cocks, balls, erections, ejaculations, peckers, dicks, tumescences, foreskins, pissings, and yes, at least one anal intrusion by a phallic object. What would I expect, I suppose, from a prison novel? I’ve heard that song by Tool. I’ve seen Oz. I know what goes on there (or so I’ve heard).

But to be fair, Cheever writes of all of this stuff candidly, not pruriently. Even so, I can only assume that it was intended to be shocking and I suppose it was at the time of publication. Reading it now however these details, these celebrations of the male body and libido, come across as tired and sad. Reductive, even. And the allusions to Christianity don’t help. As though the author intends to boil male experience down to God and cock and the spiritual turmoil that ensues between the two. (In fact with Cheever this might have been the case…in more than one private musing he cursed his libido, his sexual predilections, and his penis!)

Those aspersions aside, Zeke Farragut is a complexly drawn and intriguing character. An addict and professor whose intellect and conscience are compromised by his desires (he both rationalizes and expounds upon his addiction and sexual recklessness). He’s killed his brother and needless to say his family history is troubled. His marriage is superficial: a sham and a train wreck. Also in the book’s favour is the fact that it is written in Cheever’s marvelously fluid prose which, unlike, say, Hemingway’s chop-chop or Henry James’s clock spring sentences, encourages the eye to glide across the page and seems to pour itself into the mind.

When this novel was originally published, in 1977, fellow author Saul Bellow called Falconer elegant, pure, and indispensable. John Updike said it would give us back our humanity. Newsweek called it a masterpiece. Time magazine included this in their list of 100 best novels ever…I call BS on all that praise…considering all of the prison films and tv series we’ve been inundated with over the past thirty years, this story is extremely benign and reserved. It lacks intensity and drama. Characters are paper thin and faceless as Cheever rarely describes much about them. Much is left up to the imagination. Too much! Falconer leaves me indifferent.


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