#16: Falconer (1977), by John Cheever

He needed time, but he would not pray for time or pray for anything else. He would settle for the stamina of love, a presence he felt like the beginnings of some stair.

220px-Falconer

Q. Do you think your works will be…dated?
A. Oh, I don’t anticipate that my work will be read. That isn’t the sort of thing that concerns me. I might be forgotten tomorrow; it wouldn’t disconcert me in the least.

When John Cheever gave that answer during his Paris Review interview in 1976, broke and recovering from a legendary, decades-long alcoholism, he couldn’t have known how dramatically his fortunes were about to change in the coming years.

By the time he died in 1982, Cheever was unquestionably at his critical and commercial peak, riding the wave of a valedictory resurgence: his fourth novel, Falconer, was published in 1977 to great fanfare, and a year later, thanks to the efforts of his editor Robert Gottlieb, his epochal collected stories received rapturous reviews and a dedicated place in every bookworm’s shelf. Even a substandard final novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, written as his physical health was collapsing, couldn’t dim his stature as one of America’s preeminent writers.

Thirty-two years later, Cheever’s premonition that his books would be consigned to a long and yellowing future on library shelves, which might have seemed a tad disingenuous at the time, now seems prophetic.

Exactly who is reading John Cheever these days? His biographer Blake Bailey points out that Cheever is barely taught in the classroom anymore, and his backstock sells considerably less than those of his chief colleagues/rivals Updike, Bellow et al.

It would be easy to explain away Cheever’s diminishing influence on a new generation’s allergy to his default subject matter: WASPy suburban strife, with the requisite amounts of exclusive country-clubbing, drinking, and philandering. Stuffy stories about stuffy people.

It gets worse: Like most people my age, I first heard the name John Cheever not for his writing but as a joke on Seinfeld, where it’s revealed that the father of George’s girlfriend once had an affair with the famously bisexual author.

Forty years as a master of American letters, reduced in death to a sitcom reference.*

I’m glad to say that reading Falconer assured me that Cheever deserved his once-lofty reputation and is due for a re-appraisal — though I’m rather bearish on this particular novel — and if nothing else has compelled me to begin inching through that big red book of stories, with (so far) high returns.

The publication of Falconer was a big deal in 1977, and no doubt much of it was because of what seemed like a radical departure from Cheever’s usual m.o. The book was set not in the leafy suburbs of Westchester or the summer homes in New England but in a prison, with a drug-addicted main character who killed his brother and didn’t seem too distraught about it (“I struck him on the head with a fire iron. He was drunk. He hit his head on the hearth.”) There’s a certain mileage to be gained in watching the classically genteel author drop in liberal amounts of profanity and violence.**

But it soon becomes apparent that Ezekiel Farragut is cut from the same cloth as the protagonists in countless other Cheever stories, with the metaphor of alienation and imprisonment simply stretched out to its natural extreme.

Of course the other big reveal in this novel is the homosexual relationship between Farragut and fellow prisoner Jody. Reading it today, knowing all we now know about Cheever, it’s easy to see this as an author working out his complex sexual frustrations on the page (the prison metaphor again), but were readers hip to any of this at the time?

We should always be leery of drawing too many parallels in a work of fiction to the author’s life, but in Cheever’s case, Falconer really does seem to be an autobiographical novel. There is ample evidence, both in Bailey’s biography and in Cheever’s journal, that writing it literally saved his life. Here’s Bailey***:

On the telephone with his daughter [at the rehab facility], Cheever would become tearful and say he couldn’t bear it another day. And yet he sensed that an early departure would amount to suicide — and he wanted to live, oddly enough; he wanted to finish Falconer. “Cheever’s is the triumph of a man in his sixties,” Bernard Malamud said of his colleague’s miraculous resurrection. “Here he’d been having a dreadful time … but he stayed with it. And through will and the grace literature affords, he saved himself.” After his wife drove him home from Smithers on May 7, 1975, Cheever never took another drink.

At the end of the novel (spoiler alert), having been absolved of his brother’s death by his dying friend Chicken Number Two, Farragut manages a fortuitous escape, walks down the street suddenly devoid of fears, and urges himself to “rejoice.” This is of course a preposterous ending, a sharp right turn into contrivance, but taken in the context of Cheever’s own recovery, Farragut’s miraculous deliverance reads more like a parable, and so I found it a little easier to take.

Obviously Cheever would have been aware that the final pages of Falconer were kind of absurd, but it may also be that he simply didn’t care, reflecting a new, hard-earned outlook on life, and reflecting a change in his writing. If you read the final pieces in Cheever’s collected stories, they become much more digressive and disinterested in whatever the story is nominally about.

That’s how I read Falconer: as a series of vividly-drawn episodes that don’t really cohere as grandly as we expect a novel to. It’s those individual set pieces that I’ll take away more than the book as a whole.

Cheever being Cheever, though, any changes in approach still couldn’t mask his trademark elegant prose. You can call the man stuffy and a relic of a bygone era, but I dare you to write a paragraph as good as this, which I’ll let be the final words of this piece:

Farragut lay on his cot. He wanted Jody. The longing began in his speechless genitals, for which his brain cells acted as interpreter. The longing then moved up from his genitals to his viscera and from there to his heart, his soul, his mind, until his entire carcass was filled with longing. He waited for the squeak of basketball sneakers and then the voice, youthful, calculatedly so perhaps, but not too light, asking: Move over, Chicken. He waited for the squeak of basketball sneakers as he had waited for the sound of Jane’s heels on the cobbles in Boston, waited for the sound of the elevator that would bring Virginia up to the eleventh floor, waited for Dodie to open the rusty gate on Thrace Street, waited for Roberta to get off the C bus in some Roman piazza, waited for Lucy to install her diaphragm and appear naked in the bathroom door, waited for telephone bells, doorbells, church bells that told the time, waited for the thunderstorm that was frightening Helen, waited for the bus, the boat, the train, the plane, the hydrofoil, the helicopter, the ski lift, the five o’clock whistle and the fire alarm to deliver his beloved into his arms.

———

*Albeit a very funny sitcom reference.

**Hands up if you ever thought you’d come across a scene like the one with the cats in a John Cheever story.

***Taken from Blake Bailey’s mammoth biography of the man, Cheever: A Life.

 

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Trackbacks

  1. […] the year of Time’s first issue, and in January I wrote about John Cheever’s Falconer (click here). As I read that book, I had the impression that while individual chapters worked tremendously […]

  2. […] John Cheever’s Falconer as part of my ongoing Time project.  As I wrote in the subsequent essay, I viewed the novel, which received some of his best reviews upon its publication in 1977, […]

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