The Point Eludes Me.
Too many competing thoughts drown out the powerful writing of John Cheever.
I’m glad I read this book, though. Using his short-story prowess, Cheever puts lots of vignettes in this novella via the individual characters and there are a few powerful ones to be found here. They just don’t coalesce into a solid message or theme, and with many of the outcomes seemingly contradictory, I’m left not knowing what to feel about this novel.
[story/spoiler.] Ezekiel Farragut, a heroin addict, gets sent to a state prison called Falconer. He is convicted of fratricide. His wife, Marcia, occasionally visits, but it is clear that his marriage with his wife was somewhat of a prison itself, particularly when he caught her kissing another woman. He eventually enters his own homosexual relationship with a fellow prisoner named Jody that falls apart when Jody escapes prison without him.
Over the course of his time in jail, Cheever lets the characters share little vignettes about their lives or perspectives. There is very little that happens in this novel. James Parker writing for Slate said: “Falconeer has an evolution, rather than a plot, plots being a little beneath John Cheever.” Once again, we enter the realm of literary critics excusing massive problems with a book as artful decadence (which is what happened when I looked at literary opinion of the “The Sun Also Rises”).
Since there isn’t any plot, one has to rely on the meaning and significance of the vignettes as well as how the characters change to arrive at any satisfaction. Unfortunately given the wide array of of perspectives, one never really gets to a conclusion of what this novel is about.
Here are a few paradigms to look at the book from:
Is Prison Good? You know who cures his drug addiction? Prison. You know who lets him explore his feelings and love for another man, when in the outside world he would have shut himself off from such an experience? Prison. This theme would only work if all the denigrating moments presented in the book were lessened. Further more, those experiences weren’t transformational, leading to a character that never changed over the course of prison.
Maybe Prison is bad? People watch him squirm and crawl during a drug withdraw on purpose. The men are treated like meat, being reduced to a number and sexual being. It brings the worse out in inmates and the prison guards as there is one scene where they kill every stray cat in the place, taking away one of the few friends Ezekiel has for companionship. Prison is cold, lonely, and not capable of performing its rehabilitation purpose….until it does with Ezekiel kicking his habit which he claims was something the best addiction places could not do.
Is He Redeemed? The protagonist escapes the jail in an unbelievable sequence of events (Monte Cristo anyone?) and ends the book telling himself to rejoice. He is now a freed man, though an escaped con, and can enjoy his life again after removing the chains of his previous life (the aforementioned drug addiction and wife). The problem is — he ACTUALLY killed his brother, and there is no remorse for what he did. He did not redeem himself in thought or in action. There were denigrating experiences, sure, but they were not tied to his sense of wanting to reform or guilt. You can’t have a redemption unless there has been sweat, blood and tears of a penance.
Maybe it’s about the non-physical prisons? No doubt his relationship and drug addiction were prisons, and the entire book takes place inside of a physical one, but it’s not like this theme is very explored. While James Parker says that plot is beneath Cheever, I would say (since I did read his pulitzer prize wining short story collection) that this superficial symbolism is WAY below Cheever, and there is no way given everything else that is smashed in these vignettes that this is the take home point.
Homosexual relationships are acceptable? Everyone in prison is hooking up with others. None of them are gay, they themselves say, but many of them enter in solitary relationships with other inmates. The “shock” factor of this is very light in 2018, so if that was Cheever’s angle, it’s lost to the march of time. Second, some people read it about John Cheever projecting himself, a bisexual that entered multiple relationships with multiple people. I mean… I guess? But let’s return back to the point: is he saying that homosexuality is acceptable in prison because people are able to open themselves to some closed venue due to different societal pressures opening the valves of gay love? Is he saying there are more gay people than we think due to these cultural pressures (such as enough to fill an entire prison)? It’s really hard to say since Ekekial doesn’t change through out the novel, except when he’s happy he’s out of prison – duh.
Who needs plot anyways?
So what the hell is the book about? It’s very easy to get caught up in the writing and the imagery — John Cheever cuts a scene like no one else, pulling words together to represent abstract concepts seamlessly. On final analysis, though, it’s hard to see how all of that work comes together to make a commentary on anything. The message has to follow that of its leader, and John Cheever makes his protagonist tell dreamy, loose vignettes about a wide range of topics so guess what we get: a collection of short-stories in novella form.
Just like his short story collection, some of them were soul-inspiring while others were dreadful. The problem with having a mixed bag in a novella is that you don’t get any purpose, so while I loved the writing, I can’t say I understand the direction.
Other People’s Take:
- Reading Rampant: “It projects a feeling more than anything else: people, wherever you put them, whatever they have done, are still just people.”
- Literary Theory and Criticism Notes: “Never has the author’s and his protagonist’s affirmation been so completely self-assured as in this, Cheever’s finest achievement.”
- Hight Tea Dreams: “…this story is extremely benign and reserved. It lacks intensity and drama.”