Falconer, by John Cheever. Knopf, 211 pp., $7.95.

Cain’s later history was not recorded. We know a few facts, that he was cursed from the ground because of his brother’s blood, that he was doomed to be an outcast and a wanderer, that he bore a mark from God. He fled society and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

It is the earlier part of his story that we know. Rejected by God, he rose in anger against his brother, killed him. (As usual, the narrative from Genesis is more complicated than it would seem. It is the fruits of Cain’s labor that are mysteriously rejected, while Abel’s offering is accepted. Seeing Cain’s hurt, God delivers a cryptic message, which seems to say that Cain himself is acceptable though his offering is not. But Cain cannot accept this distinction between what he is and what he does.) His crime is one that we enact every day: frustrated by rejection, we lash out against those who have found acceptance. Jesus was quick to point out that such rage is murderous (just as he was quick to insist that all men are acceptable and accepted). But that earliest of crimes still takes place, and we are fascinated by it perhaps because it acts out what, in our deepest being, we would like to do.

“He wanted you to be killed,” screamed Eben. I bet you didn’t know that. He loved me, but he wanted you to be killed. Mother told me. He had an abortionist come out to the house. Your own father wanted you to be killed.”

Then Farragut struck his brother with a fire iron . . .

John Cheever’s Falconer does not focus on this crime. Its facts are related late in the novel, and by then are almost incidental, except that they seem to indicate Farragut has all along deceived himself about the nature of his innocence. Cheever’s narrative details the later history. It tells the story of the wanderer, the outcast, the man cursed from the ground. It is a story not just of the fate of Cain, but also of the society which condemns him.

Cheever’s land of Nod is Falconer State Prison. It is on the fringes of society; visions of what seems to be freedom are available only fleetingly: a glimpse of sky through prison bars, a gesture of affection on a television show, the casual attitudes of visitors as they walk to the parking lot toward their own lives. Its inhabitants are condemned, stereotyped, “They murder, they rape, they stuff babies into furnaces, they’d strangle their own mothers for a stick of chewing gum.” It is a land of those whom society has sentenced and forgotten.

Yet Falconer is only ostensibly about prison life. Others have detailed the horrors and deprivations of that existence — the appalling physical conditions, the brutality and ignorance of the guards, crime and mistrust among the prisoners themselves — and Cheever seems authentically to document these things, but, again, only in an incidental way. Falconer State Prison is real as a physical place, but also serves as a metaphor for something larger.

For Farragut had lost his freedom long before entering Falconer. He came to the prison as a heroin addict, his personal curse from the ground. (“The drug he needed was a distillate of earth, air, water, and fire. He was mortal and his addiction was a beautiful illustration of the bounds of his mortality.”) He regarded his addiction not as a form of slavery, but as a higher consciousness; in an age when human institutions and even physical objects were so large as to be incomprehensible, out of touch, he was convinced that man needed somehow to expand his awareness. He took drugs unashamedly, a victim of the Age of Addiction.

He was a prisoner also of his sexuality. His wife was a fiercely separate woman, who traveled by herself, manipulated their finances to gain independence. Stunningly beautiful, she represented the mysterious femininity that he saw as the only proper goal of his sexuality, but she was in love not with him so much as herself. Repeatedly admiring herself in their full length mirror, resenting his advances, (“Stop fussing with my breasts. I’m beautiful.”) she was perhaps most attracted by other women, who reflected the feminine beauty that she so perfectly embodied. Farragut and his wife were never one flesh. He complains in the prison visiting room that their marriage failed because they stopped doing things together, but really nothing they did had ever been together, even their lovemaking: both were worshipping at the image of her beauty.

He was a prisoner most basically of the heritage of his family and the society they represented. Of aristocratic stock, they were financially ruined, lived in the family homestead where gas pumps had replaced his grandmother’s famous rose garden. Farragut was haunted by the contradictions in that life. He had seen his mother attending the opera in a lavish gown and pumping gas in front of the house. His father occupied himself as an expert sailor, navigating the safe harbors around Cape Cod, and flirted with attempts at suicide. Farragut’s brother Eben, apparently as torn as he, dabbled in minor social causes but was brutal to his servants and his family.

These tensions had always been latent in Farragut’s life, but it is only in prison that he finally sees them for what they are. Falconer is a reflection of the society that has spawned it. A massive, forbidding place, it too has a notable history, but has entered into a period of obsolescence. “The shabbiness of the place . . . gave the impression, briefly, that this must be the twilight and the dying of enforced penance.” Everything about the place, the tasteless food, shabby facilities, especially the men who run it — a warden who dropped out of high school and bought the answers to a civil service test for twelve dollars, a prison lawyer who has abandoned the idea of justice and exists only to support the institution, a prison doctor who wears a felt hat and stained suit in the hope of maintaining the dignity of his position — suggests a society on its last legs.

Yet it is in the midst of this fallen world that Farragut finds his freedom. It is during his days in solitary, when the warden entertains himself with the spectacle of Farragut’s methadone withdrawal, that he discovers the true nature of his addiction. It is at the Valley, a prison urinal reserved for masturbation — twenty men lined up at a cast iron trough, careful not to touch or particularly to notice each other, fucking themselves — that he sees a reflection of his own lonely sexuality. It is during a riot at a nearby prison, when the fear and brutality of the guards really emerges as they try to prevent communication among the prisoners and with the outside world, that Farragut discovers the repressive nature of the society that surrounds him.

But he also moves beyond these discoveries. Abandoning his obsession with the nature of sexuality, he comes to realize, in that place which is physically so barren, that love requires a human touch, and he takes a lover. Jody is central to the novel. A man without a future — he will not even see a parole board for twelve years — he claims to dislike homosexuality, but his friendship with Farragut is joyously physical, and it is rumored that he has had relations with many more prisoners. Scorning society at large, he nevertheless enrolls in a business course that the prison offers, and easily does well. He scoffs at religion, but it is through a religious intermediary, a cardinal who speaks at a prison ceremony and celebrates mass with the men, that Jody, this man without a future, effects a miraculous escape.

Ultimately, surprisingly, Falconer is a religious novel. Allusions to religion appear throughout, in Farragut’s glimpse of a Christmas symbol as he enters the prison, in his impassioned letter to a bishop which denounces the prison as a travesty of Judgment (along with his admission that he is a religious man, but that “to profess exalted religious experience outside the ecclesiastical paradigm is to make of oneself an outcast”), in his plea to a fellow prisoner that he has a “diamond” that can “save the world,” and especially in the marvelous final chapter, where he accepts a mysterious sacrament and uses the sacrifice of a fellow prisoner to effect his own deliverance. In that final chapter he sees an image on a television screen of a family in a house, locked in unresolvable conflicts, and, beyond them, images of a forest, the sea; he cannot understand why they don’t just abandon the situation that has entrapped them and move into the freedom that is openly offering itself. It is attachment to society that is the real prison. Just before the murder, Farragut had asked Eben why he lived as he did, and Eben said, “ ‘Because I love it.’ . . . Then he bent down, raised the old Turkey carpet and kissed it with his wet mouth.” Men who are wanderers, outcasts, have no such attachment to the world of things.

Cheever’s novel is spare, lean, elegantly written, far richer than any review can suggest. But it is most valuable not just for these things, but also because it offers to modern man a vision of deliverance and freedom.