Sunday, March 2, 2008

Book review: Falconer by John Cheever

My copy of this book is, I believe, from the original soft cover printing in 1977. The cover and frontispiece are filled to bursting with raves: “The outstanding #1 bestseller,” “Cheever’s triumph … a great American novel,” “Marvelous, extraordinary…,” “… the year’s likely literary event.” With all due respect to the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsweek, et al., book critics of the mid- to late-70s, I just don’t see it.

Falconer is the story (and by “story” here I mean “loosely-connected, disjointed, rambling stream of consciousness”)” of Ezekiel Farragut, a swinging, heroin-addicted college professor who has been locked away in Falconer Prison (hence the title – this book has nothing to do with birds of prey per se) for murdering his brother with a fireplace poker during a mundane disagreement. For 220-odd pages, we are drawn into Farragut’s twisted, pathetic world, observing the dreary day to day existence of the Falconer prisoners: the visits to the methadone clinic, lock-downs, chow time, work assignments, regularly scheduled mass masturbation in the tunnels beneath the jail, secret rendezvous with his much younger prisoner lover. We also learn of Farragut’s life before he was imprisoned: his uncomfortable marriage to a beautiful, scornful woman; his many, many affairs; his discomfort with his family. Through all of this it is insinuated that Farragut is actually better off in jail, whether he realizes it or not.

Every now and again there was a bit of linear plot, which was refreshing. Farragut’s prison lover escapes from Falconer during a visit to the jail by the cardinal; later, Farragut himself successfully escapes in a body bag meant for the corpse of his recently deceased cellmate. The problem was that I just didn’t care what happened. I found every character to be, one way or another, ignorant and offensive so I wasn’t sympathetic to any of them. In addition, since the novel is not written as straight narrative but rather as trippy free-form prose, there was no clearly delineated plot or characterization to follow that would make me interested in the book’s denizens.

There were a couple of passages that caught my eye with their lucidity. With regard to the concept of applause: “It had always astonished and deeply moved [Farragut] to realize that so diverse and warlike a people could have agreed on this signal of enthusiasm and assent.” The other was spoken by a prison guard after a long day of warding off a potential riot: “'Long ago when they first invented the atomic bomb people used to worry about its going off and killing everybody, but they didn’t know that mankind has got enough dynamite right in his guts to treat the fucking planet to pieces.'” Ain’t that the truth?

There’s certainly some wisdom contained in this novel, and some pretty passages as well. But if you are like me and prefer your stories to have a coherent plot, Falconer is not for you – no matter how much they loved it in the 1970s.


  1. We don't know each other, so please forgive my intrusion here, but I couldn't help but comment on your post about "Falconer." I just read the book and found it to be very good. I wasn't bothered at all by the "plotline." I've read many, many books that were far less linear in the storytelling than this one. In fact, "Falconer" is fairly easy to follow. As for the characters, I had a great deal of empathy for most of them, as they expressed very human and real thoughts and emotions. You can't expect them to be wonderfully attractive people, considering they are in prison for committing heinous crimes. But Cheever does an amazing job of making them human beings, not caricatures so typical of prison inmates as depicted in popular movies and television. Certainly many books and movies have been made about prison life, but I'd had to place this one near the top of the heap, not, obviously, because it's a big-time thriller but because it convincingly captures a piece of life behind bars that everyone should seek to understand. Anyway, thanks for the venue to vent.

  2. Geoff - thank you for taking the time to comment here. I think I probably am in the minority when it comes to my take on this book - the person who recommended it to me LOVED it and was surprised at my adverse reaction to it. I think what it comes down to is that, when it comes to books, I am generally a traditionalist and prefer straightforward, linear plot/prose (with exceptions, e.g. my love for Sharp Teeth, also reviewed on this site).