IF CURSED IS too strong a word, too melodramatic, certainly doomed is excessive and grandiose, and one would not willingly ascribe those inflated qualities to the Chekhov of Ossining, one of our truly fine writers, John Cheever. Yet cursed and doomed are two words that surface on the mind - not the only words, not even the most important words, but there nonetheless - when thinking about the House of Farragut, the Anglo-Saxon branch of the House of Atreus now at home in Connecticut.
Condsider the inauspicious beginnings of Ezekiel Farragut, the Protagonist of Cheever's new novel, Falconer . "One of his mother's favorite stories was of the night that Farragut's father brought a doctor to the house for dinner. Halfway through the dinner it turned out that the doctor was an abortionist and had been asked to dinner in order to kill Farragut." The anecdote left him understandably ambivalent about his mother. "For Farragut the word 'mother' evoked the image of a woman pumping gas, curtsying at the Assemblies and banging a lectern with her gavel. This confused him and he would blame his confusion on the fine arts, on Degas. There is a Degas painting of a woman with a bowl of chrysanthemums that had come to represent to Farragut the great serenity of 'mother.' The world kept urging him to match his own mother, a famous arsonist, snob, gas pumper and wing shot, against the image of the stranger with her autumnal and bitter-smelling flowers. Why had the universe encouraged this gap," Farragut wondered. "Why had he been encouraged to cultivate so broad a border of sorrow? He had not been plucked off some star by a stork, so why should he and everybody else behave as if this were the case?" So much for Farragut's mother. Her role is almost entirely offstage in Falconer but she will be familiar to readers of Cheever's three previous novels - The Washot Chronicle (1957), The Wapshot Scandal (1964), and Bullet Park (1969) - and of his many short stories. (Readers not familiar with these elegant, entertaining and altogether excellent works are urged to become so.)
Farragut, of course, could not remember the abortionist's coming to dinner "but he could remember walking on a beach with his brother." Brother Eben suggested Farragut go for a swim. There was a rip tide and the ocean full of sharks. He was saved from this "well-known deathtrap" by a stranger; his brother had jogged on ahead. "Farragut remembered being happy at the fact that he was alive.The sky was blue." They discussed a forthcoming wedding. Another time, at a party in New York, Farragut, drunk, was pushed out the window of a brownstone, narrowly missing the iron spears of the fence. A nameless departing guest helped him to his feet. Farragut did not look back to see who might have pushed him. No need to look, however, his brother did it. Cheever's protagonists, fallen upon by family, are often dependent on the kindness of strangers.
So life, miraculously, goes on in the green hills of suburban New York and Connecticut, in an apartment on Sutton Place, along the littoral of Massachusetts Bay, in all those pleasant prisons - St. Botolph, Bullet Park, Shady HIll, etc. - where Cheever's people gather at the cocktail hour to cut their graceful figures on the thinning ice. When the ice breaks, the results are dismaying, indeed disastrous: Farragut, provoked to blind rage, kills his brother with a fire iron. His widow testified Farragut hit Eben 18 to 20 times "but she was a liar." Thus does Farragut - a taxpayer in the 50 per cent bracket, a professor of humanities - find himself on Cellblock F of what is now known as the Falconer Correctional Facility (its most recent name, Daybreak House, never caught on), sentenced to "zip to ten" for fratricide, dependent on methadone. He had been a drug addict for many years.
"The cream of the post-Freudian generation were addicts. The rest were those psychiatric reconstructions you used to see in the back of unpopular rooms at cocktail parties." In prison Farragut gets badly beaten; writes brilliant letters to the governor of the state, his bishop (Farragut is, of course, an Episcopalian, a croyant who finds it less embarrassing to profess his faith with the French word than any English one), and an old girlfriend; falls freely, passionately and tenderly in love with a young prisoner; listens to the prisoners' stories; receives an occasional visit from his wife, who tells the turnkey, "I am a taxpayer. I help support this place. It costs me more to keep my husband in here than it costs me to send my son to a good school." (Well, Farragut always demanded style from women, and that was mostly what he got. "He never really liked any woman who wasn't a dark-eyed blonde, who didn't speak at least one language other than English, who didn't have an income of her own and who couldn't say the Girl Scout Oath.")
Despite their addictions - to cigarettes, gin, heroin - Cheever's protagonists are very cool heroes, bemused by life and on the surface highly successful at it. And yet they are acutely aware of a fall from grace, and see themselves as living a life of unearned and undeserved ease; they are not WASPS for nothing. Farragut looks back nostalgically to "a memory of himself as a blond, half-naked youth in good flannels, walking on a white beach between the dark sea and a rank of leonine granite." The memory of innocence is pleasurable, right out of Scott Fitzgerald; the summoning it up is "contemptible," a sign of weakness that a proper New Englander would scorn. Weakness, of course, is punished, one way or another.
In an interview published last fall in The Paris Review, Cheever said that verisimilitude in fiction is "a technique one exploits in order to assure the reader of the truthfulness of what he's being told." Here are tow examples from Falconer :
"He remembered the women in the sea before Ann Ecbatan's coming out. They all swam a breast stroke to keep their hair dry."
The prison "bars had been enameled white many years ago, but the enamel had been worn back to iron at the chest level, where men instinctively held them."
"Of course verisimilitude is also a lie," Cheever said in the same interview. "What I've always wanted of verisimilitude is probability, which is very much the way I live. This table seems real, the fruit basket belonged to my grandmother, but a madwoman could come in the door at any moment." The possibility of that Euclidian equation of table and fruit basket being forever altered by a random madwoman is what elevates Cheever's tales from the level of John O'Hara, say, to a high level of art in which, as with Nabokov, there is a high proportion of artifice.
Falconer was a risky novel to write, although it does not represent so great a shift from Cheever's traditional concerns as its prison setting and love affair might first indicate. Life is still observed with the same cool eye and described in the same clear prose; the novel proceeds directly on its course, taking the reader along with it; when the madwoman comes in the door, we willingly believe it. And unlike Bullet Park , which ended in ambiguity at best, Falconer closes on an unequivocal note: "Rejoice, he thought, rejoice."
For this moving and excellent novel, the reader might well say the same.