Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Books: Falconer, by John Cheever

Here is a prison drama easily taken at face-value: the book begins when Farragut arrives at prison, and ends when he escapes. We get some but not much of his back-story, and a curiously detached access to his emotional state while in prison. Farragut is a junkie who curses the guards when they neglect to give him his methadone, but he consistently seems a sane and rational narrator; he is in prison for killing his brother, but recounted in a flashback, the "murder" is perhaps an accident. He is educated enough that he's given a job at a typewriter. He takes a homosexual lover, but with little fanfare: no violence, no doubt, but simple acquiescence to circumstance—it's better than the ravaging loneliness he felt before.

One should always hesitate before reading an author's work autobiographically, but I do think that Cheever's alcoholism and concomitant stint in rehab immediately prior to the writing of this novel is relevant—it was the closest to first-hand experience of prison life Cheever had, and all the frustrations (isolation, deprivation, infantalization, loss of control, lack of privacy, and of course withdrawal) of rehab are similar to those of prison. Too, Cheever's own bisexuality likely explains the ease with which Farragut succumbs to such a relationship (where a less sexually-evolved male writer could only portray homosexual relations as rape, a struggle with power rather than loneliness).

There's something very clean and simple about Cheever's writing—it doesn't call attention to itself, but only tells the story. The story, too, is small; there's a prison uprising, but it's at a neighboring prison, and the incarcerated at Falconer merely hear about it on the radio, and make a half-hearted attempt to join in solidarity by lighting one mattress on fire. Nothing here is epic, grandiose, timeless, melodramatic. Farragut eventually makes his escape by zipping himself into a body bag, leaving the dead man in his bunk, and this is the greatest symbol we're given—a rather functional one at that. As much a fan as I am of the hyper-inflated post-modern novel, I appreciate Cheever's lean functionality, his suppressed rage, his matter-of-fact-ness. There's a silent realization of our choicelessness in most matters, which few novelists—control-freaks most—constantly deny.

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