A Story in Every Cell

Falconer, John Cheever’s prison novel, was his masterpiece.

John Cheever
Falconer has an evolution, rather than a plot, plots being a little beneath John Cheever.

Photo by Bachrach/Archive Photos/Getty Images

In the catalogue of 20th-century literary improbabilities, you’d file “prison novel by John Cheever” somewhere between “zombie novel by Eudora Welty” and “biography of Lyndon Johnson by Philip K Dick.” Cheever, after all, was the New Yorker–anointed eulogist of mile-high Massachusetts afternoons, fugue-state hangovers, and grand moments on beaches and ski-lifts. His prose is Parnassian-Alpine with infusions of erotomania: Somewhere on the Internet a John Cheever Sentence Generator is spewing out combinations of immodesty, principality, Campari, speechless genitals, some promise of, and inestimable. At no time in his life was he incarcerated.

Nevertheless, a prison novel is exactly what Cheever did write—between the years of 1974 and 1976, nearly killing himself in the process—and it is his masterpiece: a strange and wonderful book about men, prison, and men in prison. In one sense, Falconer has its beginnings in the writing class that Cheever taught at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the early ’70s. (As Cheever biographer Blake Bailey notes: “Almost every set piece in Falconer—almost every detail—appears somewhere in Cheever’s journal entries about Sing Sing.”) But in another, more properly Cheeveresque sense, it has its beginnings in the book of Genesis. For the primal offence of fratricide (braining his insufferable brother with a poker) Ezekiel Farragut, a high-rolling professor with a heroin habit and a complicated wife, is sent to Falconer State Prison. Arriving at the penitentiary gate, shackled and “torpid with methadone,” this modern Cain passes beneath “an escutcheon representing Liberty, Justice and, between the two, the sovereign power of government.” He is crossing, semi-consciously, onto the symbolic plane—a place of dreamlike possession. To quote Mick Jones: “Clang, clang, go the jail guitar doors.”

The first thing that happens to Farragut in Falconer is the thing that keeps on happening to him: Someone tells him their story. Unasked, as if under a fierce spell of candor, someone volunteers the details. “And I never got laid free, never once,” laments a man who happens to be chained to Farragut. “I paid anywhere from fifty cents to fifty dollars, but I never once shot a lump for free … I just wish I had it free, once.” They occur throughout the book, these man-monologues—Bumpo’s story, the Cuckold’s story, Jody’s story—whining, mendacious, boring, enthralling, grandiose or limpidly truthful, their urgent idiomatic music in bracing counterpoint to the glassy chime of the Cheever high style. (Here, for instance, we go skidding in the space of a few lines from “the inestimable shyness of men” to “shot a lump.”) Even the shaven-headed Marshack, most brutal of the guards, has his say: “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 enough dynamite right in his guts to tear the fucking planet to pieces. Me, I know.”

What is this storytelling? This profound and unstoppable lack of discretion? Why do the tiers and cells of Falconer seem to contain an entire shipful of Ancient Mariners, each one holding Farragut with his skinny hand? There’s class stuff going on here: John Cheever had a little elitist inside him, and some of this talk is simply the terrible volubility of the proletariat, as it grates on the genteel ear. Some of it, more deeply, bespeaks a humility that Farragut himself has not yet attained. (GK Chesterton: “It is always the humble man who talks too much. The proud man watches himself too closely.”)

More deeply still, the instinct to confession is part of Cheever’s “mystery of imprisonment”—meaning not just walls and guards, but confinements of soul. Addiction, obsession, despair. Cheever inaugurated the writing, or the nonwriting, of Falconer in a small apartment off Boston’s Kenmore Square. (A place he would later describe as “asshole.” As in: “This place is asshole.”) He was supposed to be teaching BU students how to write. Instead he seems to have spent most of his time sitting naked and drunk in his apartment, like a poisoned teddy bear, while a page featuring the novel’s first lines protruded reproachfully from a neglected typewriter. Falconer was “the book at hand”, the work not in progress—immoveable, unfinishable. Its author, meanwhile, was pursuing his booze-career with suicidal deliberation, starting early and piling it on all day. At last his brother Fred prised Cheever, raving, out of Boston and drove him home, whence he was despatched to the Smithers Alcoholism Treatment and Training Center, in Manhattan—the sort of place, we may assume, where a man is clinically compelled to tell his story.

Most writers suspect at some point that they might be brain-damaged—that depression or drug use has knocked out the electrics across a frontal swathe of their brain, leaving them to run their entire operation out of a tiny, overheating stump of neurons in the rear. John Cheever, when (sober now, post-Smithers) he recommenced the writing of Falconer, was actually brain-damaged, for real: A CAT scan had revealed areas of “alcohol-induced atrophy.” There’s no sign of this in the prose—unless you count its occasionally empty sonorities as an indicator of loosening faculties. “Food had something to do with his beginnings as a Christian and a man.” Does that mean anything at all? But Cheever had been writing lines like that his whole life. Elsewhere, Falconer is piercingly acute: “The bars had been enameled white many years ago, but the enamel had been worn back to iron at the chest level, where men instinctively held them.” Instinctively … There’s the pathos of imprisonment for you, the human price. In Falconer, too, the fastidious Cheever found the freedom to write a sentence like this: “The day was shit.”

Freedom, not unexpectedly, is a big thing in this prison novel. As he sinks into the population Farragut has his own fit of storytelling, in his own style, writing letters of lyrical emancipation to his bishop (“As Your Grace well knows …”), the prison governor, and an old girlfriend. He endures methadone withdrawal, and enjoys a rapturously physical love affair with a fellow inmate named Jody. (“ ‘I’m so glad you ain’t homosexual,’ Jody kept saying when he caressed Farragut’s hair.”) Jody escapes. Later a photo of Jody appears in the newspaper. Under a different name, he has married a well-born woman, and the photo is from his wedding day. “He promised to wait for me,” snarls a convict called Di Matteo. “I saved his life, and he promised to wait for me. He loved me—oh, God, how he loved me.” But Farragut, in his lovely, methadone-free detachment, laughs. He is happy for Jody, purely happy.

Falconer has an evolution, rather than a plot, plots being a little beneath John Cheever. At one point Falconer’s inmates seem to be preparing for a riot; authentic narrative tension builds. But the moment is aristocratically mishandled, and we are soon back with the usual sequence of variations and lovely dilations. Nonetheless, Farragut grows, develops as a man, toward his own private prison breakout. “Cunning was needed; cunning and the courage to take his rightful place in things as he saw them.”

The writing of Falconer was an escape for Cheever, too. Of course he continued to mope ecstatically in his journal—at a desk, in sealed communion with himself, this is just what he did—but his life by any measure was improved. He’d dried out, to begin with: the Smithers cure had worked, and with the help of AA he never drank again. And in the telling of Farragut’s love for Jody, he seemed to have achieved a reconciliation with his own large and very democratic libido. From tortured bisexual he had moved to … less tortured bisexual. What’s more, the book was a best-seller, allowing its formerly broke author to renew his memberships at all the knobbiest clubs. Falconer is not an allegorical novel, nor is it Kafka-esque or through-the-looking-glass, like that other, earlier great weirdo prison novel, Stanley Elkin’s A Bad Man. But it does move beyond time, fusing the actual and the symbolic, the blocked heart and the locked door, the prison outside and the prison inside, in a conjunction that is nearly sacramental. Cheever knew what he’d done, and how far he’d gone. The book’s last word: Rejoice.