Re-stating the worth of man

Falconer by John Cheever

Sometimes an American acclaimed bestselling novel is actually worth re-reading. John Cheever's Falconer comes to mind.

Cheever is a master story-teller, but Falconer is more than a good tale. It is a philosophical re-statement of the worth of man (even if this sounds trite). For Falconer Prison (correctional facility as the authorities would have it) is a place where human beings are slowly being dehumanised.

The author is unmincing in his words, even brutal, to bring across the savagery, fear and insanity of prison life.

Ezekiel Farragut, a college professor and heroin addict, killed his brother under the influence of the drug. He was sent to Falconer, the place where he thought he would die. On arrival, he is escorted to cellblock F.

“F,” said Tiny the warden, “stands for ... freaks, fools, fruits, first-timers, fat-asses like me, phantoms, funnies, fanatics, feebies, fences and farts. There's more, but I forget it. The guy who made it up is dead.”

Blue sky of freedom

In such a forlorn place, Farragut seeks frantically for a word, an image, anything to anchor his sanity on. The first day was the blue sky. The blue in the space between the van (which brought him and 10 other convicts to Falconer) and the prison was the first spread of blue some of them had seen in months. How extraordinary it was and how truly pure they seemed! They would never again look so well. The light of the sky, shining into their condemned faces, showed a great richness of purpose and innocence.

But each day Farragut must wake and must search for the image, whether it be a man in prison grays feeding bread crusts to a dozen pigeons or whether it be the actions of visitors to Falconer .

And indeed how unappreciative of freedom these people were – the visitors.

They were free free to run, jump ... drink, book a seat on the Tokyo plane. They were free and yet they moved so casually through this precious element that it seemed wasted on them.

As the last of the visitors departs, he feels like crying and howling for he is among the living dead. Even a simple activity like jogging gives him an illusion of freedom. So he jogs to the mess hall, to the bath house and around the yard.

Kindness of memories

But it was the memories that sustained him best. Perhaps the book is too full of them, still they make interesting reading. Strangely, these reminiscences are among the most moving passages in the novel.

Farragut remembered during a medical checkup (before he committed the crime) doctors discovered heroin had damaged his heart. After prolonged treatment he was discharged and told to avoid exertion or excitement. When he returned home he told his wife Marcia: “I can't climb stairs or drive a car and I do have to avoid excitement. It seemed easy enough. maybe we could go to the beach.”

Marcia walked down the hall to their bedroom and slammed the door. The sound was like an explosion to him. In case he had missed this, she opened the door and slammed it again. He became faint and in the distance heard Marcia ask: "Is there anything I can get you?" Her tone was murderous.

“Some sort of kindness,” he had said. “A little kindness.”

“Kindness?” she asked. “Do you expect kindness from me at a time like this? What have you ever done to deserve kindness? What have you ever given me? Drudgery. Dust. Cobwebs. Cars and cigarette lighters that don't work. Bathtub rings, unflushed toilets, clinical alcoholism, drug addiction ... and now a massive attack of heart failure. That's what you have given me to live with, and you expect kindness.”

Some other remembrance was kinder. Stretched on the starch-hard bedsheet of his cell Farragut wrote to a girl (with a stolen pen) he had lived with for two months when Marcia had moved out of his home. He recalled the times with this girl, dwelling not on specific instances but on a memory inconclusive and with few specifics. It was in some provincial Italian railway station.

We have either missed the train or there is no train or the train is late. I don't remember... All I really remember is a sense of your company and a sense of physical contentment.

Sexual mileage

He had desired and pursued women who charmed him with their lies and enchanted him with their absolute irresponsibility. When he bought diamond earrings he had deliberately judged the sexual mileage he could expect from these jewels.

Rejoice, rejoice

Eventually Farragut escapes from Falconer Prison. It was sheer luck, simple and ingenious. And it is truly appropriate that the book ends with these lines:

Farragut walked to the front of the bus and got off at the next stop. Stepping onto the street he saw he had lost his fear of falling (he had forgotten how to walk as a free man). He held his head high, his back straight and walk along nicely. Rejoice, he thought. Rejoice.

– Francis Chin,  review in newspaper, June 28, 1980