Book Review: Falconer by John Cheever

My girlfriend gave me a copy of Falconer as a gift and I was quite intrigued by the blurb. It said something about a prisoner who killed his brother, finding redemption through a relationship with a fellow inmate. The novel is so much more than that. It is kind of hard to describe what happens in Falconer, which is weird because the story is pretty straight forward. The reason I say this is because there are so many subjects that are being dealt with over the course of the book. It is a very short novel but nonetheless it tackles subjects like drug addiction or sexuality rather profoundly. Cheever never stays with a subject for very long though. You could think of it as a very brief succession of meditations on life and humanity, for which the story in prison only acts as a vessel in the form of beautiful prose:

What he felt, what he saw, was the utter poverty of erotic reasonableness. That was how he missed the target and the target was the mysteriousness of the bonded spirit and the flesh. He knew it well. Fitness and beauty had a rim. Fitness and beauty had a dimension, had a floor, even as the oceans have a floor, and he had comitted a trespass. It was not unforgivable – a venal trespass – but he was reproached by the majesty of the realm. It was majestic; even in prison he knew the world to be majestic. He had taken a pebble out of his shoe in the middle of mass.

Cheever’s storytelling in Falconer is very serious but at times it has a very magical feel to it. There is somehow always a feeling that life is beautiful and that everything happens for a reason, which is weird considering the bleak overtone of the novel. I think that this ambiguity is exactly what Cheever meant to accomplish because it can be found within pretty much every character of the novel. Farragut, the main character, seems to be rotten to the core but there are flashes of great kindness and empathy. The prison guard Tiny is a terribly violent and heartless person at the beginning of the novel but surprises the reader by being the only person in prison that treats Farragut humanely and fair. Cheever perfectly displays the paradoxical being of humanity, its beauty and its ugliness, because one cannot exist without the other. Sure, there are good-natured people that do a lot of things right and there are purely evil people but you can find a little bit of both in almost anyone. Humans are often ignorant of their ignorance, just as Farragut thinks his above average intellect will get him out of prison, just by writing a couple of pseudo-intellectual (but ultimately douchy) letters to people in power. Cheever succeeds at creating characters that are not easy to like but are also hard to hate, which can sometimes be a sign of bad writing but in this case it signifies something bigger, something that goes beyond the prisoners of Falconer.

My only real problem with the novel was the lack of any real character development, which can probably be attributed to its length and its wide array of topics. While the blurb advertised the novel as a story about a relationship saving someone from himself, I felt like said relationship did not have much impact on Farragut at all. Sure, he was affected by it for a while but in the grand scheme of things it did not really change him as a person. The story gives too much room to symbolism and philosophical questions, which prevents Farragut from noticeably evolving. For me personally, this was not a big deal because I still gained a lot from reading the book but the story was not as rewarding as it could have been.

First and foremost, Falconer is a meticulous study of human nature, of its beauty and its flaws. While all of us make wrong decisions almost every day, there is a good spirit within a lot of us that always seems to prevail. Of course, one could interpret it the other way around: We sometimes stumble upon occasional goodness, even though we are inherently malicious beings. I believe that both can be the case. History has shown that our world is capable of raising humans that are capable of inconcievable evil. But I can only speak for myself when I say that I have experienced inherent goodness within many people over the course of my short life. I believe in the goodness in people and quite frankly, I believe this to be the more productive approach. Maybe not in business, but in leading a virtuous life.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“First and foremost, Falconer is a meticulous study of human nature, of its beauty and its flaws.”

Published by timothywhitlock

German-American, writer, boyfriend, media student, musician.

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