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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Falconer

The intensity and bluntness of Falconer, John Cheever’s fourth novel, will almost certainly surprise those who have read his other novels. The author’s tendency to write darker and darker novels over the years is not nearly enough to prepare his readers for the shock that is Falconer.

Falconer is Cheever’s famous “prison novel,” the story of 48-year-old Ezekiel Farragut, a genteel professional who, in a drugged fit of rage, one night murders his own brother. Now, Zeke Farragut is just another inmate in a maximum security prison called Falconer, a man still fighting his drug addiction and trying to maintain his sanity in an environment for which nothing in his old life could have prepared him.

Prison is, of course, an environment in which homosexual acts are common, a world in which sexual violence and intimidation simply cannot be controlled by those in charge of the system. Cheever often included homosexual or bisexual characters in his previous novels but, before Falconer, he never described the men or their sexual activity in the frank terms he uses to describe Farragut’s day-to-day existence inside the Falconer system.

John Cheever novels particularly appeal to readers who enjoy short stories because of the way that he allows his characters to tell stories seeming to have little to do with the main plots of his novels. In this way, Cheever creates some of the most memorable characters of recent decades and builds detailed environments for his novels. Often, in fact, readers will become so immersed in a Cheever side-plot that they return to his main plot with a jolt. Falconer is no exception because of the way Cheever allows many of Falconer’s prisoners to explain to Farragut just how they ended up in the prison.

The strength of Falconer is its cast of characters: prisoners, guards, and visitors, alike. Cheever is not as successful, however, in creating a totally believable prison environment because the novel touches so lightly on the racial and gang violence common in prisons even in the 1970s. Some of what he describes inside Falconer is more surrealistic than realistic, a choice that somewhat lessens the impact of this terrific character-study.

That said, Falconer made a huge splash when it was first published and it is a major literary achievement that deserves to be read today, some three decades after its publication.

Rated at: 4.0

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