A Place to Come To
America has as yet produced no important novelist who could, like Thomas Mann, publish his greatest work at the age of seventy-two and then go on to write a comic masterpiece based upon a fragmentary jeu d’esprit that had existed for more than forty years. Whatever the reasons adduced—thinness of the cultural humus, the isolation of individual talents, the parching glare of early success, periodic downpours of alcohol—our novelists tend to burn out or die off even sooner than our poets. At a much less Olympian level than Mann, the survival of a good American writer into his seventh decade with undiminished powers is sufficiently rare: one can hardly imagine an autumnally vigorous Scott Fitzgerald.
John Cheever has not merely survived. He has, after a successful career in St. Botolphs, the East Fifties, and suburbia, chosen to emigrate. Falconer is a surprising book, far stranger even than Bullet Park, which was, in its juxta-positions and denouement, unsettling enough. The name “Falconer” is not that of the protagonist but of the prison in which the protagonist is immured. I have no idea how much first-hand knowledge Cheever—a long-term resident of Ossining, New York—has of prisons, but he has succeeded in writing a story in which the grossly tangible details of prison life interact with a series of vividly narrated but often wildly improbable events to create what seems to be the author’s private version of hell. It begins with the arrival at Falconer of Ezekiel Farragut, a middle-aged, upper-middle-class professor (and drug addict) who has been convicted of fratricide; it ends with his escape, zippered into a burial sack meant for the tattooed body of a pathetic old convict known as Chicken Number Two, whose death has been labeled NKRC (No Known Relatives or Concerned).
Except for one brief episode dealing with the escape of another prisoner, the novel concentrates exhaustively upon Farragut’s present and past experiences, both as he himself perceives them and as they are unflaggingly elucidated for us by the author. We are led to contemplate as well as share the outrage of a sensitive, cultivated, and wounded man who, believing himself to be essentially innocent, is subjected to the stupefying routine and progressive degradation of this new environment. Farragut yearns poignantly (if undemocratically) for hierarchy, intelligence, and order; he is forced to submit to the bullying of his inferiors, to the senselessness of the regulations, to the ultimate chaos, not order, that underlies the system. His longing for his wife’s love is met by her ferocious rejection. He is denied visits from his son on the grounds that it would be psychologically harmful for the boy to see his father as a prisoner. When he is denied—capriciously and illegally—his daily methadone fix, a deputy warden comes to watch the “floor show” of his withdrawal agony, orders him to be cut down when he attempts to strangle himself, gives him permission to go to the infirmary for the …