Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Falconer, by John Cheever

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Falconer exhibits all the best qualities of John Cheever’s short fiction, worked into novella length. Based on his experiences teaching at Sing Sing prison, Falconer is also a vehicle to dissect many of its author’s darkest demons. 

 John Cheever is arguably one of the best short story writers of the late 20th century. His silken and sinuous prose reads like the product of a natural born writer, always finding the perfect adjective or metaphor. Most of his stories run along in a stream of consciousness manner and concern themselves with sex, love, middle class problems and the corrosive aspects of American society. A main theme of Cheever’s shorter fiction is American discontent despite material wealth. There is plenty of affluence and comfort in Cheever’s world, but not much happiness.
 
The two John Cheever novels I’ve read (The Wapshot Chronicles and Bullet Park) are like one of his short stories, but extended to novel length. Falconer follows this pattern, with a few interesting twists. Its short, 150 page length makes it closer to a novella and its stream of consciousness style fits more neatly with the story’s subject matter.
 
The action takes place at Falconer men’s prison and centres around Ezekiel Farragut, who has been sentenced for the murder of his brother, Eben. The novel is really built around Farragut’s turbulent inner life. We get a lot of troubled internal monologues and unique personal perspective on the world. Orbiting Farragut are the prison guards, prisoners and occasional visits from his wife. These create further dramas to the ones happening inside Farragut’s head. Falconer also deals in considerable detail with Cheever’s bi-sexuality. Farrgut has a male lover, Jody, inside the prison.
 
Cheever taught creative writing at Sing Sing prison. Obviously these experiences furnished him with the characters, argot and situations of prison life which went into the novel. There are many uncanny echoes of Jean Genet’s prison novels in Falconer. The rest is pretty much John Cheever working out his personal demons – his sexuality, marital problems, troubled family life and general pessimism.
 
My preference is still for the short stories, as Cheever simply excelled at them. Novelist and critic Edmund White suggests that the novels lack development, but maintains they are fascinating and worthy of attention nonetheless. Falconer deserves special mention as it stands more solidly as a stand alone work and better fuses his short story skills into a longer format. The Wapshot Chronicles (1957) and Bullet Park (1969) have a static feeling. As Edmund White says, you wait for something to develop, whereas Falconer has a wonderful density and intensity, showing Cheever at his most despairing and frank.

Falconer, by John Cheever. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780143566359   RRP: $9.95