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Falconer is a novel by American short story writer and novelist John Cheever. It tells the Create a book · Download as PDF · Printable version. eBook . Considered by many to be Cheever's masterpiece, Falconer is a tour de force from John Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, in , and he went to school at Thayer Academy in South Braintree. FALCONER. JOHN CHEEVER. Previous page; Next page. 3; 4 · 5 · 6 · 7 · 8 · 9 · 10 · 11 · 12 · 13 · 14 · 15 · 16 · 17 · 18 · 19 · 20 · 21 · 22 · 23 · 24 · 25 · 26 · 27 ·
The failure was national … We failed to mature as a people and had turned back to dwell on old football triumphs, raftered ceilings, candlights, and fires. On that day these two Cheevers emerged as the characters of Lawrence Pommoroy and his unnamed brother.
The split is apparent in the narrative voice. For instance, there is a costume ball, where at least three men have dressed as football players and at least ten women have dressed as brides.
This tableau infects the narrator with joy, for he sees it as clever, romantic, and a part of the most beautiful coincidence. Ten brides and three football players are indicative of a lack of personal originality, as well as a gratuitous display of the failures of middle-age. The split is even more dramatic during backgammon evening, where the narrator observes—by again assuming the thoughts of Lawrence—that virtue, self-esteem, and soul are successively gambled away.
The astuteness with which he exposes his mother astonishes us with its cruelty.
Such indeterminacy makes it easy to see why alternating points of view within a first person narrative is a technique frequently fated to failure. Throughout the rest of his work, Cheever will struggle with his Lawrence. Donaldson, Scott, ed. Patrick Meanor.
John Cheever Revisited. Boston: Twayne Publishers, p.
Praise for John Cheever
Unable to resolve their differences, the narrator hits his brother over the head in a modern day Cain and Abel episode, not killing him but giving him an excuse to leave the family forever. His attendance at the annual Pommeroy gathering is the first in years. He is moral, pessimistic, and clever—a man whose sensibilities are attuned to the moral decay he sees in every person and situation. He is the cleverest at games and sport—he wins at tennis and backgammon, but outside of this talent, he seems to nurture few other ambitions.
Between himself and the narrator, there is a friendly rivalry, because they are closest in years. Lawrence frequently accuses her of promiscuity, and indeed, it is implied that her current lover is staying at an inn nearby. She also has a tendency to drink heavily, and there are glimpses of her pathetic, manipulative, and petulant character. Her favorite child is Chaddy.
Helen has been married to the narrator for over a decade. When her husband attends the costume ball in his football uniform, she attends in her bridal gown, a decision that essentially declares that they are still glamorous young lovers after all. Aghast as what he deems unfair pay, Lawrence tells her she should join a union and receive benefits. The Indian Summer was brilliant and still. We went unwillingly when the time came to go. South of Hartford it began to rain. We reached the apartment house in the east Fifties where we then lived just before dark.
The city in the rain seemed particularly cavernous and noisy and the summer was definitely ended. Early the next morning I went to the room where I work. Before leaving the Vineyard I had begun a story, based on some notes made a year or two earlier in New Hampshire. The story described a family in a summer house who spent their evenings playing backgammon. I saw a canoe accident on a mountain lake.
Reading the story over that morning I saw that, like some kinds of wine, it had not traveled. It was bad. I come from a Puritanical family and I had been taught as a child that a moral lies beneath all human conduct and that the moral is always detrimental to man: I count among my relations people who feel that there is some inexpungable nastiness at the heart of life and that love, friendship, Bourbon whisky, lights of all kinds—are merely the crudest deceptions.
My aim as a writer has been to record a moderation of these attitudes—an escape 23 from them if this seemed necessary—and in the backgammon story I had plainly failed. It was in essence precisely the kind of idle pessimism that I had hoped to enlighten. It was in the vein of one of my elderly uncles who never put a worm on a fish hook without stating that sooner or later we will all be corruption.
In order to occupy myself more cheerfully I looked over the notes I had made during the summer. I first came on a long description of train—sheds and ferry-boat landings—a song to the engines of love and death—but the substance of this was that these journeys were of no import—they were a kind of deception.
A few pages after this I came on the description of a friend who, having lost the charms of youth and unable to find any new lights to go by, had begun to dwell on his football triumphs. This was connected to a scathing description of the house in the Vineyard where we had spent a pleasant summer.
The house had not been old, but it had been sheathed with old shingles and the new wood of the doors had been scored and stained. The failure, my notes said, was national. We had failed to mature as a people and had turned back to dwell on old football triumphs, raftered ceilings, candlelight and open fires.
There were some tearful notes on the sea, washing away the embers of our picnic fires, on the east wind—the dark wind—on the promiscuity of a beautiful young woman I know, on the hardships of island farming, on the jet planes that bombed an island off Gay Head, and a morose description of a walk on South Beach.
The only cheerful notes in all this were two sentences about the pleasure I had taken one afternoon in watching my wife and another young lady walk out of the sea without any clothes on. It is brief, but most journeys leave us at least an illusion of improved perspective and there was a distance that morning between myself and my notes. I had spent the summer in excellent company and in a landscape that I love, but there was no hint of this in the journal I had kept. Lawrence arrived on the island on a voyage of no import.
I made the narrator fatuous since there was some ambiguity in my indignation. The plan of the house was clear to me at once, although it was unlike any house that I had even seen. The terrace, the living-room, the staircase all appeared in order and when I pushed open the door from the pantry into the kitchen I seemed to find there a cook who had worked for my mother-in-law the year before the year before last. The story was moving then towards the boat club dance.
Ten years ago at a costume ball in Minneapolis a man had worn a football uniform and his wife a wedding dress and this recollection fitted easily into place.
The story was finished by Friday and I was happy for I know almost no pleasure greater than having a piece of fiction draw together incidents as disparate as a dance in Minneapolis and a backgammon game in the mountains so that they relate to one another and confirm that feeling that life itself is creative process, that one thing is put purposefully upon another, that what is lost in one encounter is replenished in the next and that we possess some power to make sense of what takes place.
On Saturday I took a train to Philadelphia with a friend to see a football game.
The story was still on my mind but when I thought back over what I had written, looking for weakness or crudeness, I felt assured. The football game was dull. It got cold. I began to feel uneasy at the half. We left in the middle of the fourth quarter. I had not worn a top-coat and I was shivering.
Waiting in the cold for the train back to New York I saw the true worthlessness of my story, the scope of my self-deceptions, the flights and crash-landings of an unstable disposition and when the train came into the station I thought vaguely of throwing 25 myself onto the tracks; but I went instead to the club car and drank some whisky.
New York: Appelton-Century-Crofts, : pp. Once again the subject matter is inherently difficult, and the moral question it raises is exceptionally complex.
The narrator is one of four grown Pommeroy children who periodically gather at the home with their widowed mother. Their mother offers Lawrence a Martini, and he gruffly asks for some rum instead. The request annoys Mrs. Pommeroy because she considers rum a poor choice and because there is none available.
In some stories, but surprisingly few, he seems to connect excessive drinking and the psychological problems of his characters. But no matter what the activity or occasion, Lawrence discovers something to disapprove of, some way to make those around him miserable.
Even Mrs. If it is true that most of us are reasonably content with our lives most of the time, someone with as dour a view of life as Lawrence stands little chance of redeeming us. Above and beyond the preoccupations of everyday life, such passages suggest, there are moments or days when the heavens open to reveal the truth that life can be fine and beautiful, if only we allow it to be.
Lawrence is not prepared to admit this, and that is why his brother, with some deliberation, almost kills him. All of these narrative components take on more than their surface appearance and substantially expand a story of family conflict into mythic dimensions.
His use of proper names of characters and places enriches the interpretative possibilities and adds a quiet but distinct comic subtext to an already vivid array of characters and plot twists. But it is crucial that the reader understand that the story is also about the life-denying Puritanical nay-sayers versus the life-affirming yeasayers.
Lawrence Pommeroy is consistently associated with the dark, the sinister, and the east. Lawrence is, after all, a lawyer, and his name symbolizes his fractious rigidity. Chaddy Pommeroy, the third brother, and Chucky Ewing, the organizer of the country-club dance and the party games, which Lawrence refuses to participate in, both have names that are cognates of Charles and, of course, Archbishop Laud supported 30 and was supported by Charles I, who also lost his head to the Puritans under the chief Roundhead, Oliver Cromwell, because the king had tried to oust the Puritans from political power.
Lawrence is also against drinking, accuses his mother of being an alcoholic, refuses to play cards, abhors dancing, and eschews all activities that Puritans considered sinful. Indeed, toward the end of the story, Lawrence reveals to his family that his primary purpose in returning to their summer home was to say goodbye; he wants to sell his equity in the house to Chaddy.
The wind was northerly.
The air was clear. In the early heat, the roses in the garden smelled like strawberry jam. What ran you do? Even the rare moments of light were somehow blighted by Cheever's peculiarly toxic form of self-hatred. Cheever doted on Gurganus, and yet still he was moved to write of him: "The more he flirts, the more he seems like a woman. In Cheever returned to Ossining and, on 9 April, Mary drove him to the Smithers Alcoholism Treatment and Training Centre in New York he tried to jump out of the car on the way, but still: a part of him obviously knew what he had to do.
Throughout his treatment, Cheever, an AA sceptic, was by turns ironic and faux humble; a "classic denier", according to one of his psychologists. But it worked. He left Smithers on 7 May, and never drank again. He was able to resume writing his novel Falconer, and when it was published in , he was rewarded with a Newsweek cover strapline: "A Great American Novel: John Cheever's Falconer". In the travesty that all but one of his short story collections was out of print was duly put right with the publication of The Stories of John Cheever.
And then there was Max Zimmer, whom he met while teaching in Utah. I am at a loss as to what to say about Max; a large part the attraction seems to have been that he had "none of the attributes of a sexual irregular" in other words, Cheever thought him manly-looking; he was not a hip-waggler. Cheever promised to help Max with his writing, and encouraged him to leave Utah, telling him he would help him get a place at Yaddo, the writer's colony with which Cheever had strong connections.
So they embarked on a relationship — of sorts: in Bailey's book, Max describes one of their early sexual encounters as "just a gruesome thing to have to do". Cheever never did manage to get one of Max's stories published in the New Yorker, or anywhere else, but when, in the summer of , he was diagnosed with cancer, it was often Max who drove him to the hospital for his radiotherapy sessions.
In the months before Cheever died — Max having divorced his wife and with nowhere else to go — the house in Ossining became a strange haven. Mary moved Cheever back into the marital bedroom for the first time in years; and Cheever moved Max into the spare bedroom. Mary cooked; Max chopped wood; and Cheever, when he was physically strong enough, would take Max — or another lover, Tom Smallwood — into the woods for sex.
Through everything, Cheever had the most astonishing libido.
Sex with men now commonplace for him, Cheever looked back on his old sad self with something approaching amusement. And Mary? He now considered his marriage with a kind of prayerful wonder.
I think this was done most happily within my marriage, although I do remember being expelled to sofas in the living room I do recall the feeling of moving, rather like an avalanche, toward Mary. Susan is right about the house. From afar, gazed at through the dripping greenery, it looks idyllic.
But up close, scenes from rackety old horror films do float through the mind. It seems to be fraying elegantly about its edges, as if it were a set design left behind by some long since abandoned movie production. When we arrive, Mary and Ben, who lives in nearby Pleasantville, are waiting for us; at the sound of the car, they come out on to the house's slate steps to greet us. These two are so alike: dark-skinned, long-faced, small and wiry.
Mary, in her wide-legged tweed trousers, looks frail — you feel as if you could crush her in your hand, like a potato crisp — and her voice is infamously girlish, like Bette Davis's in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Susan says that people used to ring the house, hear Mary, and ask: "Is your mother in? Even as she professes ignorance about all manner of prosaic things, you understand that she is beady and knowing and, above all, rather tough.
She is Cheever's widow. I find that I have to remind myself of this — it just seems so incredible — and the thought makes me shiver. Inside, almost nothing has changed since Cheever died, though there is now a strong smell of cat Mary has taken in a middle-aged woman, a lodger who has 10 cats; "Well, I didn't know she had 10 cats," she says.
Even his books are still about the place. The ceilings are low, and it is gloomy; wallpaper gently peels. But Ben and Susan have a delightful attitude to all this. It seems not to get them down. Behind their mother's back, and sometimes in front of her, they pull hammy faces, and roll their eyes. They chivvy, and cajole and argue. Most amazingly of all, at least for an outsider, they make no concessions to Mary's age when it comes to propriety; and she seems not to demand it.
Never before have I discussed oral sex in front of a year-old lady, let alone the oral sex enjoyed by her husband with another man; and I do not believe I ever will again. Here, though, it seems almost to be expected. Certainly, no one notices my blushes.
The Cheevers, with gusto, and a certain amount of bravery, still like to squeeze their father's life until the pips fly out. I can't quite get over it.
Ben, too, loves Bailey's book. The facts, the sordid facts and the glorious facts, were available to me already. But he's presented a pretty accurate picture. When Daddy was alive, he was always changing everything. We were in a wonderful house! We were in a terrible house! So and so was his friend!
So and so was despicable! I was his beloved son! I was a terrible embarrassment! It was very confusing. Blake has plotted that out. One of the most hurtful things for all of us is that we're almost never in them. You're actually relieved when you appear in them as a disappointment!
But perhaps Ben had it worse. Cheever would complain in his journal that his elder son was effeminate, and to his face would tell him: "Speak like a man! Just to cap it all, it was to Ben that his father came out two weeks before his death, in a telephone call to Ben's then office at Reader's Digest. In fact, I remember Max flirting with me a little, and I was shocked; I thought Daddy would be horrified if he knew Max was a homosexual.
It was upsetting but it wasn't as upsetting as being screamed at when you're a little boy for being effeminate. I've had to [over the years] reorganise a lot, and to some extent I'm still involved in that process. But this [the biography] is a story I can live with. Daddy has redeeming values. He was so funny. I was interested in being a writer, and I didn't like people telling me that they would have expected something better from John Cheever's son.
That was tough. My first novel got turned down by lots of people, and no one could believe that. I'm sure there are lots of people who feel, with some confidence, that they would be a lot better a writer than me if they had my name. Everybody has a father; everybody has a psychic load. But I'm also lucky. In my attempts to figure him out, I have all these documents, and they're pretty well written, too.
You're exactly right, though, to think that I had my ups and downs with him, even after he died. Sometimes I'd think: boy, he was a hero! He overcame all these terrible things. But then, other times, I'd think: boy, what a prick!
He'd destroy every-thing just so he could get a drink, just so he could get blown.
John Cheever (Bloom's Major Short Story Writers)
He published his first story twenty-seven years before his first novel; the intervening decades saw nearly of his stories in print.
Cheever's story output decreased somewhat as he made his mark as a novelist, but the publication in of The Short Stories of John Cheever, a selection of sixty-one of his finest, reconfirmed in readers' and critics' eyes his mastery of the form. The themes of Cheever's novels run through his stories and often appear there first, worked out within tight fictional boundaries before being amplified in the novels.
In "The CountryHusband" two sons and a daughter are introduced and as quickly forgotten, and in "Percy" the narrator unobtrusively mentions taking as Cheever did a walking tour of Germany with his brother, who then disappears for good. Elsewhere when brothers appear they dominate, and their relationship is generally one of conflict.
It might be objected, of course, that in the short story, of all forms, gratuitous minor characters dilute the narrative flow. Why toss in a sibling who merely skulks around a story's perimeter? This consideration does not account, though, for the scarcity of marginal brothers in Cheever's fiction. Its dozens of families abound with children of minimal narrative importance.
Yet with the above exceptions none are brothers, who simply do not play minor roles in Cheever's world. One or more daughters turn up in seven stories, a single son fills out the cast of three, sister-brother combinations figure in five more, and in several others there are references to unnamed offspring of still lesser stature.
When Cheever needs marginal children to round out a fictional family, he makes them brother-sister or sister-sister. Nowhere does he examine such a relationship in depth. When he elevates a filial conflict to importance, he invariably chooses brothers. Seven years older than John, Frederick Cheever was a major influence in his life and the object of both his warm affection and icy resentment. Wary like many authors of discussing the confluence of fact and fiction, Cheever was especially so regarding Frederick, even in interviews in which he was effusive and eloquent on all other topics.
But he always balked at the suggestion that their relationship entered his fiction even indirectly. In an interview conducted by his daughter Susan for Newsweek in , for example, Cheever asserted that "the strongest love of my life was for my brother" 69 , adding, a year later to John Hersey "I don't suppose that I have ever known a love so broad Cheever: The brother appears in a great many stories. I strike him in some, I hit him with sticks, rocks ; he in turn also damages me with profligacy, drunkenness, indebtedness, and emotional damage Hersey: A minute ago, you said, "I strike my brother.
Cheever: It seems to me that any confusion between autobiography and fiction debases fiction. The brothers were very close as youngsters and inseparable for a time. After their parents' separation and John's expulsion from Thayer Academy at age seventeen —which resulted in his first published story, "Expelled," in The New Republic the following year— John and Frederick settled in Boston, where they lived together for four years.
Frederick supported them financially while John tried to write, and by all reports they supported each other emotionally as well and were rarely seen apart. Whether they suffered a specific falling-out which Cheever never brought to light or the relationship simply became stifling is not clear.
The demons that drove John Cheever
Cheever remarked to Hersey that during this period he and Frederick were "extremely close — morbidly close" and that it seemed to him that "two men living with such intense intimacy was an ungainly arrangement, that there was some immutable shabbiness about any such life" In they separated, John moving to New York to try his fortune as a writer there. Cheever later said of the split, "I walked, so far as possible, out of his life" Hersey But the two were never again close.
Only the fifteenth story Cheever published, it stands well above most of his apprentice work. The story revolves around Tom and Kenneth Manchester, brothers from New England who after the divorce of their parents become deeply attached to each other, take a small apartment in the city, and lead a "singular life One of the rituals they develop during four years of living together the same span as the Cheevers' is to visit every Saturday the farm of widow Amy Henderson and her daughter Jane.
The farm's stone gate, tall maples and cool porch make a welcome retreat from the city. Her frustration at his obliviousness is increased by the brothers' tendency to act, apparently even to think, in concert. The crisis comes when Jane feigns a sprained ankle to attract Kenneth's attention.
Tom sees her throw herself to the ground, observes her transparent happiness as Kenneth ministers to her, and grasps the situation. His uppermost emotion is not jealousy, though, but dismay. It occurs to him for the first time that his and Kenneth's "devotion to each other might be stronger than their love of any girl or even their love of the world" , and he decides to go away. Their closeness, he perceives, is too easy and exclusive; he feels "a sharp thrust of responsibility for them both — they must live and not wear out their lives like old clothes" Tom looks at the well-worn road home and decides that "no road of Europe or any other country could have seemed stranger.
He walked through the fields clutching involuntarily at the air As mystified and distraught as the brothers are, this is without question an affirmative ending for Cheever, for the world has been thrown open again. The love of blue sky and water, of the wonders of creation and human intercourse, is pure Cheever, and to refresh one's perspective on that world can only be good — even if it costs, as it does Tom and Kenneth, a painful separation.
Ten years later Cheever wrote of the wedge from within, of brothers divided not by cloying intimacy but by angry differences, and again conformity and nostalgia play major roles. In the splendid "Goodbye, My Brother" the Pommeroy family gathers at a beach house in Massachusetts to commune with old memories and assess the changes wrought by the previous year.
Among the grown children present are the narrator, whose name we never learn, and his brother Lawrence, a "gloomy son of a bitch" who does everything in his power, it seems, to weigh down the spirits of the others.
He asks for the one kind of liquor not in the house, refers to his sister's new friend as "the one she's sleeping with now," pesters the cook about wages and unions, and forecasts the imminent demise of the cottage: "If you had an unusually high sea, a hurricane sea, the wall could crumble and the house would go. We could all be drowned" He pries up a shingle with his jackknife to scorn the artifice by which the house has been made to look old, refuses to play tennis with the less talented members of the family, and declines to join them in any game, dance or other activity, preferring to ridicule it all at a distance as immature and corrupt.
Don't you like it here? Come out of this gloominess. So is Odette. Mother is an alcoholic Chaddy is dishonest. He always has been. The house is going to fall into the sea. Lawrence and family leave the next morning, and the story ends with a paean to "the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life" to which the wounded brother has blinded himself.
The justly famous final image is of the narrator's wife and sister — Diana and Helen, a classical touch — swimming in the sea, which throughout the story has provided for every character except Lawrence "the cleansing force claimed for baptism": I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.
Richard Rupp calls him a "stingy, mean-spirited, moralistic philistine" , and Frederick Bracher refers to the blow from behind as "the kind of reflex that makes one stamp on a spider or batter a venomous snake" But there is more going on in the story than a good brother becoming fed up with a bad one and finding release in violence, more than "a biblical reversal in which an Abel-figure strikes Cain" Waldeland John After the war, the Cheevers transferred to Sutton Place another popular Cheever location and then to the suburbs—first Scarborough, and then Ossining—which would provide him 12 with enough material for the rest of his writing career.
The Pommeroy brothers take opposite sides here. The apartment building in Manhattan is very much an active agent in the progress of the story. He overcame all these terrible things. The justly famous final image is of the narrator's wife and sister — Diana and Helen, a classical touch — swimming in the sea, which throughout the story has provided for every character except Lawrence "the cleansing force claimed for baptism": I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water.
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