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 fix, and then brains him with a chair when he leaves his cell.
Though the raw material for social protest abounds here, Falconer is a novel with other intentions. I doubt that prison reform occupies a very high place on Cheever’s list of social priorities. Even the uprising at Attica (called “Amana” in the novel), which takes place during Farragut’s confinement, serves chiefly to show the fearfulness and demoralization of the guards at Falconer. Cheever’s focus is upon behavior, idiosyncrasy, sudden acts of kindness, bizarre happenings, the aesthetic and other adaptive responses to a world of automatically flushing toilets, blaring radios, and diminished egos. His prisoners, known only by their nicknames (Tennis, Bumpo, the Cuckold, the Stone), recount obsessively their past exploits and humiliations. An obese guard named Tiny goes berserk when two cats steal the food off his plate, and leads a sickening massacre of the four thousand cats who inhabit the prison, kill rodents, and help assuage the loneliness of the inmates. A convict (Farragut’s lover) contrives to escape disguised as an acolyte when a crimsonrobed cardinal descends by helicopter to say mass and award diplomas to the prisoners who have completed a course offered by something called the Fiduciary University of Banking. Periodically the novel edges into surrealism.
It is, of course, Farragut’s own adaptation (never complete) that chiefly concerns Cheever, who handles the matter with some subtlety. Before he realizes what is happening to him, Farragut finds himself involved in a love affair with the young convict named Jody—an affair that generates considerable passion and even happiness until the opportunistic Jody transfers his attentions to the chaplain’s assistant, who will help him escape. Advancing further into the netherworld, Farragut begins to frequent a dim chamber called the Valley where twenty convicts at a time line up to “pump their rocks” into a cast-iron trough of a urinal. He adopts their language as well. When his wife on a visit asks if he has boyfriends, he replies, “I’ve had one…but I didn’t take it up the ass. When I die you can put on my headstone: ‘Here lies Ezekiel Farragut, who never took it up the ass.”’ He becomes resourceful, too, in the ways of survival, improvising a radio with copper wire when the sets are confiscated during the Amana uprising, contriving his own macabre escape.
It is the tonality, even more than the subject matter, that distinguishes Falconer from Cheever’s previous fiction. The prevailing atmosphere is one of extreme sordidness, relieved only momentarily by the old Cheever whimsicality, tenderness, and insouciance. Cheever’s stylistic sprightliness is undiminished, but the intrusion of a coarsened vocabulary often produces grotesque effects, as in this passage where the convicts are being photographed standing by a plastic Christmas tree:
The irony of Christmas is always upon the poor in heart; the mystery of the solstice is always upon the rest of us. The inspired metaphor of the Prince of Peace and his countless lights…was somewhere here; here, on this asshole August afternoon the legend still had its stamina.
And later in the same paragraph he describes an American flag with its “white stripes dyed by time to the yellow of hot piss.” One feels that Cheever’s style has undergone, with only partial success, an adaptation to the prevailing unpleasantness that closely parallels poor Farragut’s.
Yet the continuities with the earlier fiction are almost as striking as the obvious departures from it. From the beginning Cheever’s short stories and novels have been concerned with the precariousness of life, with the trap doors in the polished flooring of Sutton Place apartments, with the criminal possibilities of Shady Hill and Bullet Park. The gracefulness of Cheever’s manner, his trickiness, the snobbish appurtenances, his lyrical and descriptive powers have all to some degree disguised—or at least made amusing—the role played by hateful and murderous impulse in the lives of his characters. In The Wapshot Chronicle Coverly Wapshot is told by his mother—it is one of her favorite stories—that his father had wanted him aborted, had actually brought an abortionist out to the house during the mother’s pregnancy; we accept this as one more odd fact about the limitlessly eccentric Wapshots.
In Falconer Cheever shamelessly lifts this material from the earlier novel and applies it to Farragut and his father, but with much grimmer consequences. We learn, in a flashback late in the novel, that Farragut’s imprisonment has resulted from his fatal striking of his brother Eben with a fire iron at a moment when Eben was taunting Farragut about their father’s feticidal intentions toward him. Eben himself—Farragut is convinced—has tried to kill his brother on at least two occasions. There is some playfulness in Cheever’s presentation of even this material, but the shift in tone is unmistakable. Farragut’s mother and wife belong to a long line of tough and merciless Cheever women, women in whom a good Freudian would have no trouble discerning both phallic characteristics and penis-envying tendencies. Again there is an intensification in Falconer. Farragut’s inability to connect his mother—“a famous arsonist, snob, gas pumper, and wing shot”—with any traditional idea of maternal tenderness or serenity is, he believes, a major factor in his drug addiction. His wife, whom he once surprised in a lesbian embrace, is even more ruthless: when Farragut, after being subjected to a tirade of abuse by his wife during a prison visit, finally says, “And how is the house? How is Indian Hill?” Marcia replies, “Well, it’s nice to have a dry toilet seat.”
The homosexual emphasis in Falconer will perhaps startle some Cheever readers accustomed to his frequent and often lyrical celebrations of heterosexual sportiveness. But a close look at his fiction during the last decade reveals numerous occurrences of homosexual material—occurrences to which the straight characters invariably respond with fear or distaste. One thinks of Coverly Wapshot’s worrying about possible homosexual tendencies in himself following his wife’s desertion; or of the male prostitute in The Wapshot Scandal; or of the man whom old Asa Bascomb encounters displaying his wares in a Roman urinal in “The World of Apples.” There is a striking adumbration of Farragut’s visits to the Valley in a passage in Bullet Park where Nailles says to his teenage son, “You read a lot about it [homosexuality] these days and it bothers me. I wish it didn’t exist. Before I joined the Chemists Club I used to have to pump ship in Grand Central and I almost never went into those choppers without getting into trouble.” A dramatic shift in expressed affect has taken place—a shift that simultaneously links Falconer with the earlier books and distinguishes it from them.
Despite the differences in subject matter and tone, Cheever’s approach to narration remains much the same. He continues to manipulate his characters highhandedly, while commenting brightly upon their milieu, motives, and behavior. At its best, this distancing achieves the effect of inspired gossip. The surface is always lively and interesting, full of arresting detail, full of surprises. The commentary is usually intelligent and entertaining enough to compensate for its intrusiveness. But the Cheever manner, so often brilliantly successful in his short stories, entails disadvantages in his longer fiction. In the two Wapshot books, surfeit results from the existence of too many cleverly narrated episodes—a tedium not uncommon in the reading of long, semipicaresque novels. In Bullet Park and especially in Falconer, both shorter and more tightly organized books, there is, I think, an unresolved conflict between the explosive potential of the material and the very “brightness” of its manipulation.
Cheever quite arbitrarily makes Farragut a professor and then provides nothing to make such an occupation credible. While Farragut’s response to drug-deprivation is unforgettably vivid, the fact that he is an addict in the first place strains belief; certainly it is lent no support by the shallow psychologizing of the commentary or the claim that “His generation [Farragut is forty-eight] was the generation of addiction.” Even Farragut’s ingenious escape supplies not so much an ending to the novel as a nimble cop-out, for Farragut’s future—to say nothing of his continued freedom—is quite simply unimaginable in view of what has been established about him. Cheever seems perfectly aware of this frivolity and half mocks it.
I am not suggesting that Cheever should struggle into a straitjacket of psychological realism, but I do wish to convey my strong sense that he has not yet discovered a fictional mode that can contain the powerful stuff with which he is now dealing. Still, whatever its shortcomings as fully achieved literary art, Falconer compels attention as the darkened realization of much that has been implicit in Cheever’s fiction all along. It is an engrossing short novel, a notable addition to his now extensive oeuvre.
Robert Penn Warren is another prolific survivor, whose recently published Selected Poems: 1923-1975 has been the occasion for much justified celebration. While the publication of his tenth novel is testimony to the remarkable energies of a man who has completed his seventh decade, it will not, I believe, bring about any lively new appreciation of his achievement as a novelist. For unlike Falconer, A Place to Come To contains no surprises. Instead, it raises again an old question: why has Warren—whose poems and early short stories are so often delicate in their perceptions, natural in their flow of feeling—been unable to exorcise the demon of portentousness that has inflicted such damage upon his longer works of fiction? Even All the King’s Men—still by far the most successful of his novels—did not escape its grip, though the story of Willie Stark and his minions was strong enough to limit the harm. The new book seems to me neither better nor worse than the other ones. Less intrusively allegorical than The Cave or Flood, less melodramatic or gothic than World Enough and Time, it is none the less preoccupied, in the best Southern sophomoric fashion, with such weighty concerns as Time, Timelessness, Death, Solitude, Poontang, Exile, Homecoming, etc. Still the demon rides….
A Place to Come To is the story—narrated in the first person—of roughly sixty years in the life of a Dante scholar named Jediah Tewksbury. Jed’s origins are not only lowly but shameful:
I was the only boy…in the public school of the town of Dugton, Claxford County, Alabama, whose father had ever got killed…standing up in the front of his wagon to piss on the hindquarters of one of a span of mules and, being drunk, pitching forward on his head, still hanging on to his dong, and hitting the pike in such a position…that both the left front and left rear wheels…rolled…over his unconscious neck…. Throughout, he was still holding on to his dong.
The mode of his father’s death, together with the fact that Old Buck possessed “the biggest dong in Claxford County,” haunts Jed periodically throughout the novel. Another regular reminder of his past comes in the form of “Dere Jed” letters from his mother, a doughty little country woman who once broke her son’s nose with a shoe when he came home drunk from a high school prom, thereby providing him with the nickname of “Old Broke-Nose” by which he refers to himself for the rest of his life.
A defensive awareness of these origins affects Jed’s relationship with the South, with his fellow graduate students at the University of Chicago, with the rich horsey set with whom he becomes involved in Nashville, and, above all, with a young and beautiful leader of that set, Rose Carrington, née Rozelle Hardcastle of Dugton. It is the adulterous affair between Rozelle, who is also in flight from a trashy past, and Jed that constitutes the central action of the novel. Though the most extended, this episode is but one of many in a novel crowded with incident. Among the others are Jed’s two widely separated marriages, his wartime service with the Partisans in Italy, Rozelle’s three marriages (the last to a Mississippi black who passes as a Hindu swami), and the birth and ritual circumcision of Ephraim, the child of Jed’s middle age.
Warren has always been partial to scenes in which the violent or otherwise “strong” material is narrated with a graphic solemnity intended to leave the reader gasping. A Place to Come To is full of them. We are present when Jed discovers the suicide of his mentor at the University of Chicago, a great scholar endowed with Old World Kultur and despair; when he fires a bullet through the head of a Nazi prisoner in Italy; when, in the company of a wealthy, middle-aged horsewoman named Mrs. Jones-Talbot, he watches the covering of a mare by a stallion named Dark Power—a spectacle so “awe-inspiring” that it unexpectedly impels both the hostess and Jed into bed; and we are present again and again and again when Jed and Rozelle together explore the holy mystery of the orgasm: “It was the death in life-beyond-Time,” muses Old Broke-Nose, “without which life-in-Time might not be endurable, or even possible.”
Old Broke-Nose (or the Old Bum, as he is sometimes styled) regularly presents himself as a brooding, scowling fellow, sarcastic in the presence of the rich, truculent with women, much given to breast-beating and cosmic questioning. He is, in short, a humorless bore. Rozelle is allowed a bit more spontaneous life, but she is forced into one improbable situation after another by her assigned role as the eternally questing adventuress. Other characters have a potential interest that is vitiated either by the melodramatic functions they must perform or by the dialogue they are given to speak. Mrs. Jones-Talbot, who is meant to be a wise and sophisticated lady, is given lines that would shame the coyest grande dame in soap opera; here she is, just after going to bed with Jed:
“I’m not one for post-mortems, though I must say that this little unexpected and, I may add, unique caper will demand some private ones from yours truly. But what I was about to say is that I am one for appreciating to the best of my ability what is worth appreciating in life.”
The point, of course, is that none of the characters or incidents or themes mentioned above is inherently absurd. They are the stuff of which great novels have been and can be made. The impulse to ridicule is aroused by the painful self-consciousness, the compulsion to strain unremittingly for significance, that Warren brings to his handling of them. It is this fatal portentousness that renders his actions so stagy, his dialogue so stilted, his thematic musings so rhetorically inflated. The problem seems to arise from Warren’s unwillingness or inability to allow his characters the freedom to be—and to speak and act from the depths of their fully imagined existence. It is too bad that his gifts are not more transferable from one genre to another. As it is, A Place to Come To contains only scattered passages, mostly of natural description, that evoke the image of the fine poet—and of the fine and patient craftsman who, decades ago, wrote a story called “Blackberry Winter.”