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211 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1977
They were free and yet they moved so casually through this precious element that it seemed wasted on them. There was no appreciation of freedom in the way they moved.Ezekiel Farragut has just arrived at Falconer, a New York prison, after being convicted of killing his brother while he was high. Goodreads describes this novel as “[s]tunning and brutally powerful... [about a] struggle to remain a man in a universe bent on beating him backwards into childhood... grand themes with the irony, unforced eloquence, and exhilarating humor that make Falconer such a triumphant work of the moral imagination.” I’m not sure Goodreads and I read the same book.
“Farragut, Farragut,” he asked, “why is you an addict?”
Then Farragut struck his brother with a fire iron. The widow testified that Farragut had struck his brother eighteen to twenty times, but she was a liar, and Farragut thought the doctor who corroborated this lie contemptible.He never wrestles with or accepts the truth that while high and in anger he took the life of his own brother. Absent that reckoning, I don’t see how Falconer is supposed to be a “work of the moral imagination.” Instead, the book is filled with a lot of 1970s-style writing about sex as a proxy for power, standing, self-worth, conquest. “Considering the sovereignty of his unruly cock, it was only a woman who could crown that redness with purpose.” Ugh.
Ezekiel Farragut, age 48, (fratricide, zip to ten, #734-508-32) brought to the old iron place on a late summer's day. He wore no leg irons but was manacled to nine other men, four of them black & all of them younger than he. The windows of the van were unclean & he could not see the color of the sky or any of the lights & shapes of the world he was leaving. He had been given 40 milligrams of methadone 3 hours earlier & torpid, he wanted to see the light of day. The inestimable shyness of men seemed to paralyze most of them.Thus, we have Farragut at Falconer for fratricide & as the novel unfolds, there are long, rambling passages, including an extensive letter to an archbishop & to the governor, that might remind some of Joyce but which in some cases seem like reminiscences of favored moments in Farragut's life, including a recasting of shared & seeming embellished memories of time with his wife, a woman who had declared her marriage to Farragut "a huge mistake even before he was incarcerated for fratricide."
This was not pain, nothing so simple & clear as that. All he could identify was some disturbance in his tear ducts, a blind, unthinking wish to cry. Tears were easy; a good 10 minute hand job. He wanted to cry & to howl. He was among the living dead. There were no words, no living words, to suit his grief, this cleavage. He was primordial man confronted with romantic love. His eyes began to water as the last of the visitors, the last shoe disappeared. He sat on his bunk & took in his right hand the most interesting, worldly, responsive & nostalgic object in his cell.On occasion, he shouts out to a prison guard named "Tiny", someone who seems almost sympathetic to Farragut, "Hey, Tiny, where am I?" Tiny understood & responded: "Falconer Prison. You killed your brother", at which point Farragut simply offered, "Thanks, Tiny."
So, on the strength of Tiny's voice, the bare facts would return. In order to lessen the troubling sense of otherness, he remembered that he had experienced this in the street as well. The sense of simultaneously being in 2 or 3 places at the same instant was something he had known beyond the walls. He could, standing in a highly disinfected office, catch the smell of a woodbox & catalogue his legitimate concerns about the tire chains, snowplows & supplies of groceries, fuel & liquor--everything that concerns a man in a remote country house at the beginning of a tempest. This was memory unwillingly seizing someplace in the present.Farragut has a homosexual experience with a much younger inmate named Jody, a prisoner who later manages to somehow escape from Falconer Prison, dressed as an acolyte when a bishop visits the prison in celebration of a study program coordinated by "Fiduciary University", yes--yet another "F word". There is no further mention of the escape & seemingly no repercussions at the hands of the warden or others, just one of many elements within the novel that seem to represent a trespass on credulity. With Jody gone--"with the removal or this erotic & sentimental schedule--Farragut found his sense of time & place imperiled."
Those on the outside were free & yet they moved so casually through this precious element that it seemed wasted on them. There was no appreciation of freedom in the way they moved. A man stopped to pull up his socks. A woman rooted through her handbag to make sure she had the keys. A younger woman glancing at the overcast sky, put up her green umbrella. An older woman dried her tears on a scrap of paper. These were their constraints, the signs of their confinement, but there was some naturalness, some unself-consciousness about their imprisonment that he, watching them between the bars, cruelly lacked.Yes, these are just words strung together by an author who specializes in them but with certain authors, words can seem magical, even within a seemingly flawed book. When published, Falconer was called "the most somber, best-sustained long narrative Cheever has yet written, with an air of summing up, casting a light backward on his earlier work", these words from Walter Clemmons in a March 14th, 1977 issue of Newsweek.