Behind Bars with John Cheever
On a good day I call myself a Christian simply because I was raised Catholic, it's the one religion I know something about, and it's programmed into my cultural genes. But don't ask me to quote the Bible, even on a good day. Instead, like many of my generation, most of my adult spiritual education has been focused on Buddhism. I've done all the required spiritual reading: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Siddhartha, Gesture of Balance, Be Here Now, Surfing the Himalayas etc. and I can ramble on about mindfulness and loving-kindness as if I were one of Jack Kornfeld's original apostles. Still, I was baptized and confirmed Catholic, married in the Episcopal Church, had both my children baptized (though you could count the times they've been to church on one hand) and can still recite the Apostle's Creed from memory. In short, I've cut my teeth on Christianity, so it would seem a shame to just discard it like an old glove and start getting up at dawn to contemplate my naval for several hours before coffee.
So imagine my surprise, given my rather average shallow and cursory knowledge of the Old Testament, when, upon completing Falconer it struck me that I had just read a novel inspired by a loose 20th century interpretation of Cain and Abel, with the truncheon having switched hands. Perhaps mine is a culturally programmed reaction to any literature involving fratricide. Still, it occurred to me that perhaps Cheever had asked himself "what if Abel had murdered Cain?" in the context of our 20th century justice system. Or, maybe more accurately, what if Cain took the first premeditated shot at Abel and missed, and Abel came back later and, in a classic spontaneous crime of passion, settled the score?
In the old story, Cain, the older son of Adam and Eve, murders Abel after God accepts Abel's gift of meat but rejects Cain's gift of crops. Cain supposedly murders his brother in a fit of jealousy. Ezekiel Farragut murders his older brother Eben in a fit of rage:
" ‘I know one thing,’ shouted Farragut. ‘I don't want to be your brother...’
...’Kiss my ass,’ said Eben.
‘You've got Dad's great sense of humor,’ Farragut said.
‘He wanted you to be killed,’ screamed Eben. ‘I bet you didn't know that. He loved me, but he wanted you to be killed. Mother told me. He had an abortionist come out to the house. Your own father wanted you to be killed.’
Then Farragut struck his brother with a fire iron." (p. 174)
What we may not recall is that earlier in the story Eben tried to indirectly kill his brother Ezekiel by encouraging him to swim in Chilton Gut, a narrows between some Atlantic islands where they summered that had a deadly rip tide and was infested with sharks. While Eben runs away, up the beach, a stranger accosts Ezekial:
" ‘You're crazy,’ the stranger said. ‘The tide is turning and even if the rip doesn't get you the sharks will. You can't ever swim here.’ “ (p. 48) But Farragut doesn't acknowledge his brother's skullduggery, or doesn't believe it possible. Given what we know about Farragut's character at this point, it's possible that Farragut doesn't question his brother's innocence, even when it's obvious to the reader that Eben has set him up for certain death.
Perhaps it is Farragut's instinctual tendency to turn the other cheek away from the various forms of injustice that seem to surround him up to his incarceration - his tendency to keep his distance, to avoid involvement in his own supposedly accidental life, a life that was not intended to exist - that makes him such a natural drug addict. The drugs begin as a shield against the horrors of war, and become as time goes on an escape that enables him to sleep through an equally horrific marriage. Farragut seems to have logical, perhaps even justifiable reasons for his dependence on opiates, and in Cheever's hands the professor is perhaps the most likeable drug addict I've ever met. Nonetheless Farragut is a truly helpless sinner, and as events of his life before prison unfold it becomes apparent that he can't sustain his life as a stoned-out spectator. Ironically, it is when Farragut finally takes decisive action to help his suffering sister-in-law, niece and nephew by eliminating the source of their misery - Eben - that society locks him up. Ultimately it is the events inside the walls of Falconer Prison that bring Farragut unwittingly to his senses.
Throughout the novel, Cheever juxtaposes God's mercy against the brutal and destructive laws of man, and the poor dispirited boobs in the Department of Corrections that enforce those laws. It’s this juxtaposition that makes Falconer blasphemous and enlightening at the same time.
Consider the ignominy Chicken’s Bible undergoes during the VD exam:
“ ‘He stole my Bible,’ Chicken screamed, ‘he stole my limp leather copy of the Holy Bible. look, look, the sonofabitch stole my Holy Bible.’Chicken was pointing at the Cuckold. The Cuckold was standing with his knees knocked together in a ludicrous parody of feminine shyness...Chicken pushed him. The Bible fell from between his legs and hit the floor. Chicken grabbed the book... ‘It stinks,’ muttered Chicken. He was holding the Bible to his nose and making loud noises of inhalation. ‘He stuck my Bible up under his balls. Now it stinks. The Holy Scripture stinks of his balls. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy stink.’ " (P. 151)
It’s easy to imagine a Fundamentalist or Evangelist cursing Cheever and his entire family to hell for depicting a Bible in a scrotum, but again that would be missing Cheever’s point. Sure, it’s rolling-on-the-floor-laughing-out-loud hilarious, but it also makes the subtle point that the Bible, to these men, is just another book, good only for its leather cover. Yet for reasons Chicken fails to articulate in any sort of convincing way, it has suddenly become important to him. As readers we can see that Chicken’s sudden interest in the Bible is perhaps a harbinger of death. At the same time, Cheever sets Chicken up as a sort of spiritual agent that will facilitate Farragut’s redemption and freedom.
Some may say that Falconer is not only blasphemous, but filthy, bawdy, scatological, irreverent and just plain dirty. Those that might be disparaging of Falconer for it’s undeniably raw characteristics may be missing the meaning of the work. When an author chooses to be honest and describe unwholesome, distasteful scenes the way they are, they take the inherent risk of losing easily offended readers. Ironically these are the same readers who may stand to benefit the most from the message, and Cheever’s message in Falconer, though subtle, is powerfully clear.
What makes Cheever’s message so powerful is, again, his ability to juxtapose those things we associate with Christian goodness - love, kindness, charity, forgiveness, tenderness, understanding, compassion etc.- against those things we might associate with sin: homosexuality and drug addiction, in particular, but also the brutality of the Falconer prison environment. The episode describing Farragut’s “withdrawal show” in which he tries to hang himself with the prison’s deputy warden watching enthralls with tense, jerky rhythms:
“When the sweat was in full flood, he began to shake. This began with his hands. He sat on them, but
An equally horrific display of satanic brutality comes at the hand of Tiny, the cellblock guard who can be at once kind and at the same time unbelievably cruel:
“Two cats at the end of the block, thinking perhaps that Tiny had food, came toward him...Tiny raised his club, way in the air, and caught a cat on the completion of the falling arc, tearing it in two. At the same time another guard bashed in the head of the big cat. Blood, brains and offal splattered their yellow waterproofs and the sight of carnage reverberated through Farragut’s dental work; caps, inlays, restorations, they all began to ache.” (p. 78)
Oddly enough this experience begins to awaken religion in Farragut:
“The fire detail came in with waste cans, shovels and two lengths of hose. They sluiced down the block and shoveled up the dead cats. They sluiced down the cells as well and Farragut climbed onto his bunk, knelt there and said: ‘Blessed are the meek,” but he couldn’t remember what came next.” (p. 78)
Midway through the novel we find these horrific prison scenes surrounding a tender bittersweet love story, that of Farragut and young Jody.
“They had known one another a month when they became lovers. ‘I’m so glad you ain’t homosexual,’ Jody kept saying when he caressed Farragut’s hair. Then, saying as much one afternoon, he had unfastened Farragut’s trousers and, with every assistance from Farragut, got them down around his knees. From what Farragut had read in the newspapers about prison life he had expect this to happen, but what he had not expected was that this grotesque bonding of their relationship would provide in him so profound a love.” (p. 82)
Even though we can see that Jody isn’t much more than a hustler, Farragut’s professed love for the younger man is convincing. Even when we learn that Jody has played the prison chaplain DiMatteo to help secure his escape, Farragut shows no jealousy, no sense of betrayal. I can’t help but snigger a bit at Cheever’s portrayal of the Catholic priest and Cardinal who help the young hustler escape, given the church’s recent scandals. And I’ll admit that what I first took to be symbolic of Christian charity may actually be more of a sympathetic look at homosexuality in the Catholic Church. When Jody doesn’t return for DiMatteo and instead runs off and marries an Asian woman, the notion that Farragut has been played seems more likely. However the important distinction that Cheever makes is that Farragut’s love is real, pure, selfless, and forgiving. Thus Farragut makes a start at opening up his heart.
With Farragut’s discovery of love comes, shortly thereafter, the discovery that he is clean. When he realizes that he has, after all these years, kicked the smack habit, he discovers courage, not springing up from within, but in the form of a gift from Chicken. During the riot at Amana Prison, it is Chicken who burns his mattress and tries to incite his fellow inmates to rise up, and in the end it is Chicken who vocally mourns the death of the Amana rioters. When Chicken begins to die, Farragut comes to his comfort and aid, not because he has figured out his escape, but because he feels some compassion and sympathy for the old lifer who has not a single friend or relation in the outside world. Chicken in the end repays this kindness with his singular, courageous view of what “happens next”:
“ ‘...if they were going to take me out before a firing squad I’d go out laughing...I’d go out there and I’d dance my soft-shoe and with luck I’d have a good hard-on and then when they got the command to fire I’d throw my arms out so as not to waste any of their ammunition...and then I'd go down a very happy man because I’m intensely interested in what’s going to happen next, I’m very interested in what’s going to happen next.’ ” (p. 204)
Later, at Chicken’s bedside:
“He [Farragut] went to the chair beside Chicken Number Two’s bed and took the dying man’s warm hand in his. He seemed to draw from Chicken Number Two’s presence a deep sense of freeness; he seemed to take something that Chicken Number Two was lovingly giving to him.” (p. 207)
Just prior to Chicken’s death, Farragut is visited by a young priest. It’s difficult to tell if this visitation is real or if it’s a fever dream. Farragut takes the Holy Eucharist and the priest disappears as mysteriously as he came in. After, Cheever finally shares the circumstances of the fratricide, and even though it’s clear that Ezekial Farragut killed his brother with a fire iron, it appears he had every good reason to do so and in the process has perhaps saved the wife and children from continued psychological torture. Given the current set of circumstances and Farragut’s transition from drug addict to a truly compassionate soul, we eagerly root for his escape. That his escape is finally facilitated by a charitable stranger, we can’t help but get the sense that perhaps God (or Karma as they might say out at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center) has decided to intervene in the case of Ezekial Farragut.
Of course we don't have to read Falconer through a Christian lens to be affected by the novel's sheer wonderfulness. This is a story of a thousand perfect sentences, a thousand indelible images, a thousand stories within the story, a thousand gasps and a thousand laughs, all woven together to create one of the most impactful novels I have ever read; certainly one of my top five favorites if not my favorite. Falconer represents in many ways the novel I aspire to write: funny, imaginative, quirky, bawdy and spirited, fearless and inspiring, meaningful yet entertaining. Falconer is a very clear and accessible model, with the all the characteristics of plain good storytelling that takes the reader from place to place without ever losing the pace of the primary narrative.
As Cheever’s last fully-realized novel, Falconer stands on its own; it needs no footnote, backstory, or other surrounding context for it to be remarkable. However it only takes a cursory exploration into Cheever’s own life to see all of the author’s parallel experiences driving the narrative. Like Farragut, Cheever finally got sober after decades of life-threatening alcohol abuse just prior to writing Falconer. The “prison” of alcoholism and drug addiction is a well-known metaphor and may even be the central analogy in the work. That Cheever was an equal rights advocate in the sack may also played into his honest portrayal of homosexual love. His strained relationship with his brother, the failure of his father’s business, his on-again, off-again marriage, the counseling, the therapy, his own experience as a fallen brahmin, - all of these life experiences are brought to bear in Falconer. It seems a shame that not long after Falconer, which some have characterized as his crowning achievement, his life as we know it was over and he was off to find out “what happens next”.