Searching for redemption in Falconer, a postmodern prison novel

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Abstract

However you might feel about its place in the canon of American prison literature, Falconer uses a prison setting to explore a narcissistic personality, even at the expense of engaging more humanely with Falconer prison inmates. Still, for all its profane exploration of its anti-hero’s personality, Falconer contains a kernel of character revelations implying hope. In order to make the case for Farragut as a person capable of hope — and therefore, self-transcendence — we must, however, carefully consider this work as a postmodern prison novel.

John Cheever circa 1950

After reading Falconer, the reader wants to savor something more substantial than what Cheever leaves left to be imagined following Farragut’s last words: rejoice, rejoice. Farragut, a heroin addict imprisoned for fratricide, is Falconer’s antihero. Farragut somewhat recalls Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, but his opportunity for redemption strikes us as inherently less compelling. Concluding Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is given a copy of the gospels and we know he has an opportunity for redemption. On the other hand, in Falconer, Farragut, who escapes from prison, leaves the reader at dizzying existential crossroads. This is because Farragut’s moment of quietly “rejoicing” allows simultaneously ambiguous and confusing interpretations. Farragut’s problematic transformation, in the end, may make sense to us consciously; but it does not feel right in the gut. Cheever handles Farragut’s escape so abruptly and clumsily that we only wish he would afford us more substantial ambiguity and less uncertainty. What if Farragut had had a “St. Paul moment” only to find a male prostitute around the corner? Or a drug dealer? Of course, these choices do not occur. There is no St. Paul on-his-way-to-Damascus type of conversion. Moreover, there is nothing of the Joycean epiphany that might clear the waters. If the reader demands greater conclusiveness then it is only because Cheever led us to holy ground in the first place: a bus stop (as good a location as Damascus). In the end, Falconer is a novel that gropes for a moment of transcendence beyond self-love and drug visions but frustratingly falls flat. Compelled to interpret Farragut’s rejoicing as a moment of deep human revelation, the reader must be essentially convinced that he is not beyond hope.

In order to enter this discussion, however, we must first look at Falconer as a postmodern work of literature. Cheever’s masterwork has all the earmarks of a postmodern work because of the following: an unreliable narrator, meta-commentary, stream-of-consciousness, and a cynical attitude towards life or love. This essay can only interpret a few of these items.

Postmodern fiction challenges the reader with irony, unreliable narrators, and hyper-reflexivity: qualities found in Cheever’s work

Falconer startles us as a postmodernist novel by virtue of its characterization and narrative voice, among other qualities. When Falconer prison admits Farragut, a heroin addict convicted for murdering his brother, an inmate’s conversation with the antihero jars the reader’s ears. First, this is because the narrative voice lacks the artifice of fictional prose that might otherwise seek to find authenticity in its own narrative structure. There is no denying that Falconer’s narrative tone is highly self-reflexive. Ultimately, characterizing a narcissistic professor whose sins of the flesh take front and center, without offsetting baser realities with sociological ones, is not only tedious but a missed opportunity in storytelling (there is no denying Falconer’s theological preoccupations; we will get to that). Colorful personalities — not fully fleshed persons — revolve like discombobulated satellites around Farragut’s narcissistic inner monologue. Alas, inmates like Jody, Chicken, and the Cuckold feel like arbitrary clowns that supplement Farragut’s narrative rather than uphold it. They have none of the gravitas of Shakespeare’s bawds. Furthermore, there are colorful characters but no characters of color in Falconer prison. For all intents and purposes, Falconer prison is a whitewashed one.

Secondly, Falconer reads like a postmodernist work because of its apparent meta-commentary. In other words, the novella indirectly references Cheever’s own personality. A passage early on that illustrates this reads: ‘ “You are a professor [to Farragut] and the education of the young — of all those who seek learning — is your vocation. We learn by experience, do we not…[?]’ (12). Apart from its stilted tone, this line demonstrates ironic meta-commentary. Cheever did not ever experience prison as an inmate, although he taught at prisons. However, Cheever consigns Farragut, the murderer (an experience alien to him as well) to severe heroin addiction — rather than the author’s own alcoholism. By expanding on Farragut’s heroin addiction, Cheever inhabits his anti-hero’s consciousness with which he has created with some artistic effort. Yet, Farragut comes across as a pastiche, having at times an intellectually aristocratic language much like the narrator of the novel. The sophisticated, erudite tone of Falconer is sometimes at odds with prison grit and salt-of-the-earth prisoners whose humanity can be charitably defined as “mitigated.” Also, to say nothing of the unabashedly direct descriptions of homosexual encounters which create a curious juxtaposition with Falconer’s loftier themes of religion, redemption, and human suffering.

The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 death toll included some 1,200 prison inmates

Falconer’s use of a prison setting seems secondary to the novel. It serves, rather than informs the plot along with the anti-hero’s great struggles with drug addiction, love, and loneliness. Still, Cheever’s third-person limited narrator manages to at least place us intimately within the mind of its intellectually eccentric prisoner. One memorable passage reads: “[b]ut in the vastness of his opium eater’s consciousness was…the knowledge… [that] he would face a cruel and unnatural death” (39). To Cheever’s credit, this is one of the most authentic moments in the novel. Death, a gaping abyss is truly a felt experience. Death can swallow Farragut into oblivion — and it is terrifying because it spells the death of his ego. Ironically, it is here that Farragut is on the cusp of the truly spiritual. This line also represents one of the rare moments when Farragut’s self-absorbed anguish resonates with a more universal experience of imprisonment. How many men and women might have shuddered at these thoughts while in prison?

The prison setting in Falconer is whitewashed and involves an uprising reminiscent of Attica. Plot, being beneath Cheever (and in his defense, many literary novelists) wobbles along with what promises to be a subplot but fizzles out. Simply put, the prison uprising feels inconsequential, a bit of a red herring really (later on Farragut escapes Falconer with a stunt reminiscent of Dantès’ escape in The Count of Monte Cristo). Falconer’s inmates are quickly rounded and hosed down after they set mattresses on fire. To this degree, Falconer intersects with the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 where 1,200 inmates briefly commandeered a New York State correctional facility. Government forces met Attica uprisers with brutality and carnage. To this day, the massacre that followed represents one of the most grievous examples of the American government dealing with prisoners. The prison setting at least affords Cheever an opportunity to explore Farragut’s intense homosexual romance with Jody. Generally speaking, Falconer sometimes feels as if Bukowski were behind the story; just substitute homoeroticism and onanism for Bukowski’s unbridled heterosexuality.

Cheever’s thorny novel then is less about the prison experience than it is about a man imprisoned by his own desires. Farragut is, to be sure, a prisoner of his own subjectivity, as well (a large portion of this novel amounts to philosophical rambling which the reader interprets to be Farragut’s withdrawals from heroin). Abandoned by his wife to work his prison sentence out, Farragut explores his homosexuality in a young hustler, Jody. It is not all crude trysts — there are even moments where we see more of Farragut’s humanity — a glimmer of human charity that suggests maybe Farragut is not as self-involved as we think him to be. For example, when Jody talks about abandoning his prison studies with Fiduciary University, Farragut admonishes him as any good friend would: he must continue (78). At one point, the narrator poignantly tells us that “Jody was Farragut’s best friend” before their ensuing romance (71). This is important to note because it lays out important characterization in Farragut. This also implies that friendship precedes Jody and Farragut’s sexual relationship — and for good reason. Critically speaking, this translates to Farragut having the capacity to form meaningful human bonds, despite his major defects. Farragut’s transformation into a human capable of hope, capable of uttering rejoice! rejoice! must teleologically trace itself back to these sorts of details. From this slight kernel of characterization, springs Farragut’s potential for human virtue.

A Spanish version of Cheever’s novel

Finally, another critical moment in Farragut’s transformation towards greater charity (we mean the virtue) is illustrated through his interaction with a stranger at the bus stop. After he escapes Falconer, Farragut meets up with a drunk, rambling, but well-meaning commuter who is, fortunately, oblivious to Farragut’s appearance. At any rate, we can read one last small gesture of something approaching charity in Farragut’s behavior. After his drunk companion insists he take one of his jackets, Farragut responds, ‘ “You’ll need your coat” ’(168). When Farragut gets off, we are told that “he saw that he had lost his fear of falling and all other fears of that nature” (169). After Farragut escapes prison by switching himself into a body bag, he is excited, deathly worried that his legs will not carry him further — he is afraid of falling. His fear of “falling kept his eyes on the sidewalk,” we are told, as he ambles through a neighborhood the night of his escape (166). But we can interpret this falling in the spiritual sense too, through the drama of Christian redemption and falling into sin. Indeed, Farragut’s last thoughts — “Rejoice, he thought, rejoice” is repetitious for good reason. The first interpretation of Farragut’s jubilation is simply that he has escaped prison. The second interpretation, if we are are to believe Farragut capable of hope and love, is that love has freed him finally. As a corollary, we should also add that Farragut is freed from his grievous heroin addiction as well. Interestingly enough, for all the time Farragut believed himself to be taking methadone to control his cravings, he was actually taking a placebo (149).

Farragut, who might as well be Cheever’s fictional avatar, is a deeply flawed — at times odious character, dispossessed of self-control. But Farragut somehow still merits the reader’s compassion, despite many unsavory sequences. For all his sins, Cheever has not painted out a beast-of-a-person but rather person possessed by rage and loneliness. Falconer is a novel that deserves to be re-read, however you might feel about its place in the canon of American prison literature. The novel is as flawed as its character — although it is largely lauded as one of Cheever’s finest literary accomplishments. Still, there are powerful moments in this novel that must be savored. For all things sacred and profane in Falconer, it remains to be said that Farragut could be guilty of eternal despair.

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