Books

Now, perhaps, it will become fashionable to treat John Cheever seriously

FALCONER by John Cheever

BARBARA AMIEL April 4 1977
Books

Now, perhaps, it will become fashionable to treat John Cheever seriously

FALCONER by John Cheever

BARBARA AMIEL April 4 1977

Now, perhaps, it will become fashionable to treat John Cheever seriously

FALCONER by John Cheever

Books

(Random Flouse of Canada, $8.95)

In an interview with his daughter published in Newsweek last month, author John Cheever with characteristic accuracy put his typing finger on the critical fallacy hovering over American letters: “I think I have sometimes been mistaken as a social observer. You can’t say, T don’t deserve it,’ but the fact that I can count the olives in a dish just as quick as John O’Hara doesn’t mean I am John O’Hara ... I was told by an editor that I shouldn’t try to be serious, that my only gift was to report cocktail conversation.”

Fashions in contemporary literature have dictated that serious novels about the human condition come only from the landscape (and typewriters) of the dispossessed: the struggles of immigrants and aliens (most notably Jewish-American writers), or in Canada the French Canadians, Indians, or, at a pinch, AngloCanadians at odds with the stern demanding tundra of Our Land. The son of a North Shore Yankee, Massachusettsraised Cheever has paid a price for sticking to his own kind. The Wapshot family that peopled his earlier novels or appeared—under different names—in his brilliant short story collections (The Brigadier And The Golf Widow; The World Of Apples) knew little of the material crises of existence. Breadlines and welfarism were the sort of issues they only talked about occasionally in the leafy Cheever country of New England where wives did some charity work and more frequent adultery. Husbands certainly suffered, fighting the loneliness of their commuter way of life with three too many gins-and-tonic and the solid desperation of the middle class aching for some personal individuality. But all this seemed, well, irrelevant in North America where pain has become defined as the exclusive property of those who could not get a loan at will from the manager of any suburban bank. Though critics recognized Cheever’s talent (he has won both a National Book Award and the American National Academy of Arts and Letters’ Howells Medal) his subject matter weighed against him, creating a vague, often non-explicit resentment about the easy lives he depicted. As a class, in the past three decades, the reasonably affluent, white non-ethnic male in America could not be talked about except as the villain of the piece.

Now Cheever confounds his critics. His new novel, Falconer, has as its hero the

same gentle suburban New England male complete with well-coiffed wife, son at a private school and a battery of psychologists “supporting” the family. But the hero, Ezekiel Farragut, Episcopalian, 48, and a college professor, is in Falconer prison convicted of the murder of his brother. Indeed the entire action of the novel takes place behind grey prison walls where, with breathtaking brilliance, Cheever creates a “prison” novel that celebrates the human spirit. In Falconer, prisoners line up in “the trough” to group-masturbate, undisturbed by guards who view the activity as an antidote to prison riots. Farragut himself is now an active participant in a world of overt homosexuality and conversations liberally sprinkled with the obscenities and violence that were never part of the Boston cocktail circuit.

Whether it is symbolism or not, it seems somehow fitting that Farragut the WASP should be in jail for fratricide (am I my brother’s keeper?) even though he maintains his innocence. It is Farragut’s kind that has consistently been held guilty for the misfortunes of all his brothers in America, or indeed, the globe. It is also intriguing that, like Alexandre Dumas’s hero from the Chateau d’lf, Farragut escapes from Falconer in a dead convict’s shroud. The Count of Monte Cristo returned to wreak vengeance on those who unjustly accused him. Perhaps Cheever has the same inner vision.

But, though the setting of Cheever’s novel is new, the specific weight of his writing remains unchanged. What some critics fail to understand is that the depth they now attribute to Cheever in Falconer was always present, even in his olive-andcocktail-circuit novels. What Cheever has learned in this spare, marvelously written tale, is not more depth but more wisdom. He has learned how to make his unique vision “fashionable” and accessible to the trends of our time. BARBARA AMIEL

BARBARA AMIEL