Redemption According to Cheever
When, in John Cheever’s new novel, Falconer,1 Ezekiel Farragut’s impossibly beautiful wife Marcia returns from three weeks in Rome with her lover, Maria Lippincott Hastings Guiglielmi, she at first wants nothing to do with Ezekiel. Though a fire is burning and flowers “gleam” to welcome her home, she answers his erotic advances by putting her thumbs in her ears, wagging her fingers, and making “a loud farting sound with her tongue.” Farragut recalls—recalls years later, when he is in jail for murder—that it took her “about ten days to come around,” and then they had intercourse “after a cocktail party and before a dinner.” Afterward:
He followed her into the bathroom and sat on the shut toilet seat while she washed her back with a brush. “I forgot to tell you,” he said. “Liza sent us a wheel of Brie.” “That’s nice,” she said, “but you know what? Brie gives me terribly loose bowels.” He hitched up his genitals and crossed his legs. “That’s funny,” he said. “It constipates me.” That was their marriage then—not the highest paving of the stair, the clatter of Italian fountains, the wind in the alien olive trees, but this: a jay-naked male and female discussing their bowels.
The last sentence unmistakably bears the stylistic signature of John Cheever. No other writer would have chosen this ridiculously human moment to remind his readers of a poem by T. S. Eliot out of Dante (“the highest paving of the stair”), or of the romantic circumstances associated with other, more ideal Roman holidays. Needless to say, the implicit contrast is not favorable to the contemporary world. The contrast says: those must have been great love affairs they had in the Renaissance, unless the poets lie—but alas, Connecticut, how low you’ve sunk. By beating his contemporaries over the head in this way with his vision of a sublime classicism their lives do not possess, Cheever the satirist has earned a reputation for a rather aggressive nostalgia: what one finds in such a bitter and ebullient suburban chronicle as Bullet Park. In his softer moods he is, like Eliot indeed, or like Robert Lowell, a poet mourning the fallen world in the late afternoon of New England high culture.
Falconer is the name of the novel of which Ezekiel Farragut is the protagonist and virtually the narrator, and also the name of the maximum-security prison where Farragut is serving up to ten years for beating his brother to death with a fire iron. In such recollections as the above, through which we glimpse the pathos and emptiness of Farragut’s terrible/comfortable home life, we seem also to be looking backward through Falconer to Cheever’s earlier works, to the other pathetic emptinesses, those of Bullet Park and the Wapshot novels and stories. The retrospect of those previous landscapes sets off the simplicity and extremity of Farragut’s present situation. Guilty, jailed, about to be divorced, he no longer hovers in Cheever’s ambiguous moral twilight. But the theme of fallenness has not been left behind. It’s just that Farragut can’t fall any lower, having hit the bottom, the nadir. So the task that Cheever sets himself in Falconer—a difficult task and an important one, because Cheever is an important writer—is to make the nadir and what happens there as significant and compelling as the spectacle of the fall itself. From the point of view of storytelling as a craft, this is a standard problem: the fall is always at least potentially more dramatic than after-the-fall. And it’s complicated in Falconer because Cheever has a kind of redemption in store for Farragut. From drug addiction, felony, the cruelest of bad marriages, and a life strewn with regrets, Farragut is born again.
Some of the interest of his predicament proceeds from the fact that, even in the Watergate era, it is unusual to find a convict who is familiar, as Farragut is, with modern poetry and the fountains of Europe and wheels of Brie. On his arrival in Falconer, with which the book begins, Farragut is assigned to Cellblock F. “F stands for fucks, freaks, fools, fruits, first-timers, fat-asses like me, phantoms, funnies, fanatics, feebies, fences, and farts,” the guard tells him. “There’s more, but I forget it. The guy who made it up is dead.” The guard is an enormous man named Tiny, and the deadly boring irony of his name may stand as a symbol for the spiritual meagerness of what surrounds Farragut thereafter—Farragut, who hangs a Miro on his wall and reads only Descartes. “Excepting myself there is truly no one here with whom I can speak,” he writes his girlfriend, with a strained clarity reminiscent of Descartes himself. On Farragut’s loneliness Cheever is especially strong. It is a subject that might fairly break through on every page, but instead it applies a constant pressure of feeling from within. When suddenly it does surface we are aware of what a firm hold this novel takes upon our sympathies—as when Farragut watches a free man, leaving the prison, stop carelessly to pull up his socks, or when he speaks to his cat after a particularly cold visit from Marcia: “You know what, Bandit? My wife, my only wife, came to see me today and I don’t know what in hell to think about the visit. I remember mostly watching her walk away from the place. Shit, Bandit, I love her.”
Under the miserable burden of his memory—a childhood among the dregs of the legacy of an old New England family—Ezekiel Farragut is touching, as he is touching in his aloneness, and during a withdrawal from methadone forced upon him one day when a sadistic superintendent refuses to allow him his fix. But when he is not touching in some such way he is not particularly interesting at all. As a character he has the flaw that one who reads Descartes in prison might be expected to have: he is, almost if not quite, the literary cliché of the criminal-saint, the infernally charming sinner who, like Lucifer himself, used to be the brightest of angels. As such he is a gross romantic delusion.
The odd thing—what might have been the saving thing—is that the delusion is first of all a self-delusion, Farragut’s own grandiose image of himself. In the three long letters Farragut writes, complaining of his mistreatment to his governor, his bishop, and his girlfriend, there is an unappealing pomposity and arrogance: “We prisoners, more than other men,” Farragut writes the churchman, “have suffered for the sins of society, and our example should cleanse the thoughts of men’s hearts because of the grief with which we are acquainted. We are in fact the word made flesh; but what I want to do is to call your attention to a great blasphemy.” It isn’t clear, though I wish it were, that Cheever has any irony toward the melodramatic self-importance of this; indeed, he seems to have lent it the authority of his own lyrical and rhetorical gifts. Another example: when writing to the governor, Farragut mentions that if class differences were honored in this country, he would not even consider addressing the governor, who is below Farragut socially. This is a colorful line, characterizing Farragut very nicely as a prig. But the trouble is Cheever doesn’t seem to know that Farragut is a prig. Instead he asks us to participate in, to take pleasure in, the impudence and snobbery of Farragut’s remark. The third letter, to the girlfriend, is full of maudlin reminiscence. He recalls “the snowbound farmhouse,” “the sailboat race”—what is maudlin here seems to dwell in the little word “the.” My impression of how we are to take this is that we are expected to forgive a lonely prisoner his pretty memories. Fair enough, and pretty they are. But the fact is they flounder in prettiness, whereas they could have been searing—there are searing things in the book—were it not that Farragut’s mood is so monotonously nostalgic that nothing else can be achieved. In this respect, Cheever has failed to see through or to see around his character, and so the limitations of Farragut become the limitations of the novel.
It is for this reason that Marcia Farragut does not succeed as a portrait. The presentation of her is narrow because Farragut’s idea of women is narrow: “He had never really liked any woman who wasn’t a dark-eyed blond, who didn’t speak at least one language other than English, who didn’t have an income of her own, and who couldn’t say the Girl Scout Oath.” Of course this finickiness is a part of Farragut’s affliction, a result of his victimization by history, but it makes him, nonetheless, a poor medium through which to know his wife. As it stands, she is unrealized and inconsistent, married to Farragut for an inexplicably long time, sporadically sadistic and affectionate. The temptation is to say what has been said about John Cheever’s work before, that he is unable to “do” women, or that he is unsympathetic to them. Brut actually the defect of vision is Farragut’s, and Cheever simply doesn’t overcome it.
He overcomes the liability of Farragut’s perspective, or anyway it doesn’t interfere, in presenting-the other inmates of Falconer, and they are part of the reason that Falconer succeeds rather better as a book than Farragut does as a character. There is, for instance, a lifer called “The Cuckold” who lures others to his cell with promises of food and then tells them long stories, mostly about his wife’s nymphomania, while they wait hungrily. He tells one story, however, about a young male hustler with whom he fell in love, and who shortly after was killed. It is a poignant story, done with the eerie cleanness and precision of Cheever’s best writing. Another inmate, Jody, who is Farragut’s lover in the course of things, is an ingratiating conniver. He turns out distinctly cheap and faithless, but Farragut loves him profoundly and their affair resembles Farragut’s marriage in one way: Farragut seems to take a perverse pleasure in being stood up by Jody, it whets his eagerness. In fact, Farragut’s love for Jody is so much like his previous loves that it cannot possibly signal a stage in Farragut’s pending redemption, though that is perhaps what it is meant to do. But Jody is at the center of the book’s most remarkable episode—a brilliant and surreal and delightful anecdote—in which Jody escapes, disguised as an acolyte, in the helicopter of a visiting cardinal.
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” Cheever’s title might well allude to the famous opening lines of Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” where the escape of the falcon from its master is not celebrated as a stirring emblem of freedom but rather mourned as a sign of a world gone out of control. Farragut, too, escapes, and Cheever plays skillfully with the ambivalence of escape and disintegration. Yeats is, of course, like Eliot and Lowell and Cheever, another singer of the fallen world, but he believes in the coming again of order and innocence. I take the ending of Falconer to mean that Cheever also believes in a spiritual renewal. There is, as I have said, a strategy of redemption in the book, though it takes rather puzzling form.
As a result of a flu vaccine tested out on the convicts, a serious illness spreads through the prison. The sick and dying overflow the infirmary and Farragut must take a dying inmate into his cell and nurse him. The ebb-tide musings of the dying man spark the crucial, the climactic, recollection in Farragut of the events leading up to the murder of his brother Eben. We are led back again to those alcoholic and suicidal suburbs. Of Eben’s life: “His marriage could be dismissed, if one were that superficial, as an extraordinary sentimental and erotic collision.” His wife is so rapt and compulsive a TV addict that Eben must get himself on a favorite quiz show to get her attention. The nastiness and cleverness of such an anecdote recalls the satire of earlier Cheever, but the presiding genius here is not comic. Eben’s children suffer unfunny consequences: one is in jail, the other, Rachel, has blown part of her face away in a suicide attempt. Rachel
had written two high-spirited and passionate letters to her uncle about her determination to die. These had inspired in Farragut a love for the blessed paradigm, the beauty of the establishment, the glory of organized society. Rachel was an aberration and Farragut would sweep her under the rug as her father seemed to have done. Eben’s house, the cradle of these tragedies, was distinguished by its traditional composure.
So Farragut sounds, even in this last flashback, his distinctive note of baffled idealism. It turns out that Eben had wished him dead, had even tried to kill him, though Ezekiel’s murderous attack was only symbolically in self-defense. But the symbolism matters. It has been steadily clear that Farragut was more a victim than a criminal, but Eben’s depravity and cruelty are such as almost to absolve Farragut of his crime, and this absolution goes some way toward freeing Farragut. A spirit of absolution, in the end, reigns over Farragut’s subsequent escape, balancing the emphasis on judgment of the book’s beginning. Farragut had said that “the most universal image of mankind is not love or death; it is Judgment Day,” and that God’s “force, His essence, is Judgment.” And yet Falconer is finally a book in which everyone, everything, is forgiven. The last recollections, recounting the murder of Eben, are like a last glance cast back over the world of Cheever’s novels, and when that world comes to judgment in the mood of the novel’s last pages, it is on a day when Cheever’s God is feeling especially generous and uncritical.
There are two things to be said about this benign moral outcome. The first is that it is part of a decidedly Christian allegory in the book: the spirit of love replacing the spirit of the law, as the New Testament follows the Old. The allegory is a complex one that can’t be puzzled out here, but it is worth observing that in pursuing it Cheever is participating, or seems to be, in a new, explicitly Christian turn in American fiction: James Dickey’s Deliverance, Walker Percy’s Lancelot, and John Updike’s A Month of Sundays come to mind. The second thing to say is that the dispensation of forgiveness at the end of Falconer has about it a ringing irony. The slackening of ancient standards which Farragut and Cheever himself set out specifically to lament is present, after all, in the book’s own extension of sympathy to all wrongdoers. Evidently those standards have come to mean less to Cheever than the quality of mercy, mercy for the bare, forked animal, the “jay-naked male.” There is abundant psychological background given for Farragut’s crime and for the others, but what the criminals plead, really, is not psychic compulsion but simply sadness. Given such sadness, Cheever seems to say, who can judge these men?
This is inadequate as criminology and, more broadly, as a moral statement. As a work of art, it must be said for Falconer that it is always gratifying to see a novel in which the creative imagination and the capacity for sympathy are so powerfully related. But the right balance has not been struck. Imagination has ceded too much; its vitality has been sacrificed, its hard edges have been blurred. The result is a novel most moving, but one that is artistically soft.
1 Knopf, 211 pp., $7.95.