“He seemed, in prison, to be a traveler and he had traveled in enough strange countries to recognize this keen alienation. It was the sense that on waking before dawn, everything, beginning with the dream from which he had waked, was alien. He had dreamed in another language and felt on waking the texture and smell of strange bedclothes. He bathed in strange and rusty water, wiped his ass on strange and barbarous toilet paper and climbed down unfamiliar stairs to be served a strange and profoundly offensive breakfast. That was travel. It was the same here. Everything he saw, touched, smelled and dreamed of was cruelly alien, but this continent or nation in which he might spend the rest of his living days had no flag, no anthem, no monarch, president, taxes, boundaries or graves.” (p. 32)
The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.
Ezekiel Farragut is a disgraced former professor now serving “zip to ten” at Falconer Correctional Facility for the murder of his brother Eben. He is also a drug addict, kept alive by his daily does of methadone in the mornings. The book follows the entirety of Farragut’s stay at Falconer, starting from the moment he gets off of a bus to the moment he leaves. Along the way he meets many memorable inmates, like Chicken Number Two, a second-story man who put all of his criminal gains into his body in the form of tattoos and the Cuckold, a man serving time for killing his nymphomaniac wife and has a side business in selling prison “jewelery”. When he briefly falls in love with a young hustler named Jody, Farragut starts to break out of his drug-addicted, past-dwelling shell to think of how he too can live outside of the walls that surround him.
This is an excellent novel. It’s kind of funny, though, that this is the first of John Cheever’s books that I’ve come into contact with. Cheever was apparently known primarily for genteel suburban dramas and New Yorker short stories before writing this vulgar and vivid prison story. Looking a bit deeper than the modicum of research I usually do for these reviews, I found that Cheever, like Farragut, was also an addict, as well as a conflicted bisexual. Falconer, then, is the result Cheever’s inner being reaching out, breaking from the WASPy shackles that constrained his earlier work and telling a deeply personal story.
And what a punchy little tale it is. As opposed to the last book I read, James Dickey’s Deliverance, Falconer doesn’t tip toe around the subject of homosexual romance between men in a tough situation. It presents the love between two men as being completely natural, Farragut and Jody being only one of a few duos mentioned in the narrative. While the narrator of Deliverance made his affection for his best friend known primarily by describing how much he idealized his physical form, Cheever shows us these love stories from all sides, physically, mentally, with warts and all. His descriptions of the rituals men behind bars succumb to to slake their thirsts, like the gross, but kind of funny and definitely understandable “Valley” masturbation area, are matter-of-fact and honest, in a way I’d liken to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
I also quite liked Farragut’s attempts to visualize what kind of life would be out there for him and Jody should they, by some miracle, find themselves outside of Falconer’s walls. It feels like a very mature way of looking at gay relationships and how they would have been seen at that time, somewhat akin to the “On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931)” sequence in Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. Farragut, before his incarceration, was a man of the world, and knew gay couples primarily from seeing them at European boardinghouses while on vacation:
“How they gratified their venereal hungers would remain, for the rest of the company, acrobatic and bizarre … [s]ocially the prejudice against them was very light; at a more profound level it was absolute. That they enjoyed on another’s company, as they sometimes did, seemed astonishing and subversive.” (p.66)
Ultimately, Farragut just cannot see a way that he and Jody could live together in the outside world, partly because of prejudice, but also because of who they are as people.
Cheever also does an excellent job of describing the mental state of an addict. Farragut’s love of methadone is the greatest love story in the book, and the metaphysical lengths he goes to to rationalize his addiction are funny, and kind of lovely in their way:
“Farragut was a drug addict and felt that the consciousness of the opium eater was much broader, more vast and representative of the human condition than the consciousness of someone who had never experienced addiction. The drug he needed was a distillate of earth, air, water and fire. He was mortal and his addiction was a beautiful illustration of the bounds of his mortality.” (p. 26)
I wouldn’t compare Falconer to “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” or anything, as it’s not really a story about an innocent man getting the justice he so desires (everyone in prison says they’re innocent). Falconer feels much more realistic in its approach to the monotony of prison life, in the thousands of minor annoyances, fights, checkups and hookups that must occur behind those walls. It put me more in mind of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, another great novel (and Time 100 member) about men cooped up with one another who have to learn how to dream again, but written in a non-sentimental way.
Total pages read since January 1st: 7216 pp.
Next up on the Resolution Project: John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)