Some fiction, seeking to shock, asks you to visualize the most extreme acts of human behavior. Other, more confident narratives demonstrate that the extreme doesn’t reside at the margins but at the center of who we all are, not in monstrous aberrations of humanity but in the unknown, perhaps best unexplored, innermost natures of each of us. We see tapes of wartime atrocities and can’t help wonder what made it possible for ordinary men to become concentration camp guards. Could it happen to you? Of what are we capable? Few of us want to know.
But it’s not only the possibility of evil that we are afraid of; more personal questions can be almost as daunting. Would you drink urine in the desert? Or eat human flesh if starving? We never know for sure what capacities we have inside us or what desires. How perverse are we at heart? Would you be able, or under certain circumstances even want, to have sex with an animal, a child, a corpse? It seems unlikely, but how would you know? All these questions can be speculated upon, but we’ll never really be certain. The possibility can’t be denied, and that’s what creates fear.
For many men, the threat of homosexuality creates just such an anxiety. In a bunker, in prison, in an orgy, could you take pleasure from another man? Would you succumb to temptation, to desperation? And if so, would you find yourself liking it? John Cheever’s great prison novel, Falconer, dives unflinchingly into the heart of these questions. At every turn, Falconer acknowledges, without glorification, the sexuality that permeates the men’s prison. Whereas writers like Genet portray prison sex like scenes out of Tom of Finland, Cheever is as gentle as Tom’s of Maine. He’s at his best, and most subtle, when he depicts how homosexual encounters occur among men who the rest of the time act straight. The waspy married protagonist Farragut has an extended affair with a fellow inmate; there is a urinal trough where the men line up side by side to masturbate (which includes one of the most ample descriptions of the range of human penises anywhere); and, in the scene below, the little-liked candy fat Cuckold tells his story of the first time he crossed over. His response is a poignant combination of resistance and resignation, a slow and eventually happy acceptance of what lies within.
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From Falconer by John Cheever
“I scored with a man,” said the Cuckold. “That was after I had left my wife. That time I found her screwing this kid on the floor of the front hall. My thing with this man began in a Chinese restaurant. In those days I was the kind of lonely man you see eating in Chinese restaurants. You know? . . .
“The place, this Chinese restaurant, is about half full. At a table is this young man. That’s about it. He’s good-looking, but that’s because he’s young. He’ll look like the rest of the world in ten years. But he keeps looking at me and smiling. I honestly don’t know what he’s after. So then when I get my pineapple chunks, each one with a toothpick, and my fortune cookie, he comes over to my table and asks me what my fortune is. So I tell him I can’t read my fortune without my glasses and I don’t have my glasses and so he takes this scrap of paper and he reads or pretends to read that my fortune is I am going to have a beautiful adventure within the next hour. So I ask him what his fortune is and he says it’s the same thing. He goes on smiling. He speaks real nicely but you could tell he was poor. You could tell that speaking nicely was something he learned. So when I go out he goes out with me. He asks where I’m staying at and I say I’m staying at this motel which is attached to the restaurant. Then he asks if I have anything to drink in my room and I say yes, would he like a drink, and he says he’d love a drink and he puts his arm around my shoulder, very buddy-buddy, and we go to my room. So then he says he can make the drinks and I say sure and I tell him where the whiskey and the ice is and he makes some nice drinks and sits beside me and begins to kiss me on the face. Now, the idea of men kissing one another doesn’t go down with me at all, although it gave me no pain. I mean a man kissing a woman is a plus and minus situation, but a man kissing a man except maybe in France is a very worthless two of a kind. I mean if someone took a picture of this fellow kissing me it would be for me a very strange and unnatural picture, but why should my cock have begun to put on weight if it was all so strange and unnatural? So then I thought what could be more strange and unnatural than a man eating baked beans alone in a Chinese restaurant in the Middle West this was something I didn’t invent and when he felt for my cock, nicely and gently, and went on kissing me, my cock put on its maximum weight and began pouring out juice and when I felt of him he was half-way there.
“So then he made some more drinks and asked me why I didn’t take off my clothes and I said what about him and he dropped his pants displaying a very beautiful cock and I took off my clothes and we sat bare-ass on the sofa drinking our drinks. He made a lot of drinks. Now and then he would take my cock in his mouth and this was the first time in my life that I ever had a mouth around my cock. I thought this would look like hell in a newsreel or on the front page of the newspaper, but evidently my cock hadn’t ever seen a newspaper because it was going crazy. So then he suggested that we get into bed and we did and the next thing I knew the telephone was ringing and it was morning.”
© John Cheever