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Book #39: Falconer

I never want to go to jail.

I’ve seen too many movies, read too many books. And even though, in my head, I know a lot of that is over-dramaticized and “Hollywood,” prison still seems like a pretty nasty place.

Falconer didn’t help my impression of prison either. Man, some nasty stuff goes on up in there.

This novel, by John Cheever, puts it all out there—everything about prison life–based on the perception of the main character, Ezekiel Farragut, a drug addict who is in jail for killing his brother.

In prison, I would imagine that you have a lot of time to think, to reflect, to try and forgive or forget. And Falconer nails that.

I think Falconer shows a direct correlation between a person’s crazy family and their propensity to go to jail. When said person goes to jail, they have a lot of time to think about what got them there—and if and when they’ll ever be able to get out.

That’s Falconer in a nutshell.

The novel alternates between the “now”—prison life—and the past, Farragut’s life of freedom and what led to the murder of his brother. As he sits in jail, he reflects on his past—his crazy wife, his current girlfriend, his brother and his brother’s crazy wife.

If you’ve read any of my past reviews on this blog, and I told you that not a lot of stuff happens in this novel, how do you think I would feel about it?

Probably wouldn’t be a big fan, right? But that’s the interesting thing. In spite of Falconer not really having “a lot going on”—it’s truly an introspective novel—the book pulled me in.

Cheever has a way about his writing style that sucks in the reader. He combines ghastly, graphic detail with humor and wit to produce outstanding writing.

I’ve shared with you a couple of excerpts (here and here) I found humorous, so I won’t revisit those. But I do want to highlight one of the more graphic passages in the book—just to give you an idea of what you’re getting yourself into with this novel.

At one point, Falconer Prison, in addition to holding many prisoners, was home to hundreds of cats. Prisoners had their own personal cats. Families of cats wandered the halls.

Until, one day, one cat made the unfortunate and tragic mistake of eating a guard’s (Tiny) food. It was a delicious meal of London Broil. The guard became angry, very upset, with not only the cat perpetrator , but also with all of his feline brothers.

What followed was a cat genocide that would make PETA go berserk and The Judge from Blood Meridian look like an animal lover.

It was half and half. Half the cats cased the slaughter and made for the closed door. Half of them wandered around at a loss, sniffing the blood of their kind and sometimes drinking it. Two of the guards vomited and half a dozen cats got killed eating the vomit. The cats that hung around the door, waiting to be let out, were an easy target. When a third guard got sick Tiny said, “O.K. O.K., that’s enough for tonight, but it don’t give me back my London broil. Get the fire detail to clean this up.”

So, if you’re reading Falconer, prepare yourself for scenes like that.

That’s the only scene of graphic animal abuse, but the novel has plenty of other graphic details that, for the sake of my search results, I’ll let go unmentioned.

Let’s just say this novel is about guys in prison. I’ll leave it at that. Falconer is a dirty, graphic novel.

That said, the characters in Falconer are gripping. There’s Chicken Number Two and The Cuckold and Tennis. In such a short amount of space, only 200ish pages, Cheever really made me care about these poor guys.

One such character, only known as Chicken, exemplifies the amount of loneliness these prisoners feel. The guard, Tiny, says this to him:

“In twelve years nobody come to see you. That proves that there ain’t nobody on the street who knows your name. Even your mother don’t know who you are. Sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends, chicks–you ain’t got nothing to sit down at a table with. You is worse than dead.”…Chicken began to cry then or seemed to cry, to weep or seemed to weep, until they heard the sound of a grown man weeping, an old man who slept on a charred mattress, whose life savings in tattoos had faded to a tracery of ash…whose flesh hung slack on his bones…and whose name was known nowhere, nowhere in the far reaches of the earth or in the far reaches of his memory, where, when he talked to himself, he talked to himself as Chicken Number Two.

Man, that’s depressing.

John Cheever (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Cheever is a writer’s writer. No fluff. No wasted space. No experimental garbage. He simply tells a good story.

Though he was more well-known for his short stories—and thanks to Seinfeld, for his letters—Falconer is an exceptional novel…with one exception.

The ending.

The ending seemed so forced, so out of place in this book. It was too easy and nice—and it seemed like Cheever wanted to tie a pretty little bow on this brutally ugly package, which was 95% of his story.

I try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, so I won’t take this line of thought any further, but I’m interested in knowing your thoughts if you have read Falconer. What’s up with the ending?

In all, Falconer is an excellent, well-written—though graphic, disturbing and violent—novel. Regarding John Cheever, all I have to say is, “That boy can write,” with a nod to my southern heritage.

At times Falconer felt a little like Shawshank Redemption with the humor of Catch 22. At other times, it made me turn the page as quickly as Deliverance or Lolita. Falconer can be an uncomfortable book to read.

But it’s a good read. And if you’re okay with being a little (or maybe a lot) uncomfortable, you’ll hopefully agree.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “The main entrance to Falconer–the only entrance for convicts, their visitors and staff–was crowned by an escutcheon representing Liberty, Justice and, between the two, the sovereign power of government.”

The Meaning: Falconer (which is also the name of the prison) explores the story of a group of prisoners trying to find some type of meaning in a seemingly hopeless existence.

Highlights: Great writing. Cheever is amazingly talented at writing a mostly “plotless” story that is still entertaining.

Lowlights: For me, the graphic sexual nature of the novel was too much. Plus, the cat genocide was a little gross. And the ending just didn’t fit.

Memorable Line: “None of the cruelties of their early lives–hunger, thirst and beatings–could account for their brutality, their self-destructive thefts and their consuming and perverse addictions. They were souls who could not be redeemed, and while penances was a clumsy and a cruel answer, it was some measure of the mysteriousness of their fall.”

Final Thoughts: Despite the patches of graphic content, I forged onward through Falconer. I think it’s a worthy read. And I’m not sure that I’ll ever look at a cat the same way again.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Teresa #

    I’m with you 100% on this book. If I were cynical I’d say maybe he wrote the ending with the hope of snagging Paul Newman for the movie. It wasn’t at all plausible. But overall the book is worth reading.


    April 2, 2012
    • Yes! It’s almost like he wrote that ending with Hollywood in mind. It just didn’t fit.


      April 2, 2012
  2. Just today I found out about this author’s existence while reading about author’s weird writing habits (apparently Cheever wrote everything in his underwear if I remember correctly) and I feel like delving into his work. I will check this novel out.


    April 2, 2012
    • What? How did I miss that? Writing in underwear. Sounds like a good post.


      April 2, 2012
  3. Sounds like a great book – I’ve not read Cheever, so he’s now on my to read list. As to the cat parts -(I’m a cat loverBTW) – I think sometimes graphic has to be in there to exemplify the brutality of the overall situation, gross as it is.
    It was a good review – and thanks for not giving us the ending even if it doesn’t work. Actually saying that made me want to read it even more!


    April 3, 2012
  4. homec #

    I have had so many good books disappoint me with a terrible ending. Sometimes it feels like they ran out of time or like you said, want to tie everything up into a neat package when the rest of the story is anything but neat. It’s unfortunate because that’s the last thing, so it leaves a bad taste.


    April 3, 2012
    • Yeah, that was the case in my opinion. Why force a sappy ending on a dark novel?


      April 3, 2012

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