Thursday, January 21, 2010

Don't you cry for me

Current book: Light in August
Pages read: 146-290

Well, actually, this post is going to be about all 290 pages, seeing as how I never wrote about the first 146. There just wasn't time. The interview went well, though, so I had a good reason to slack off. And yesterday I didn't get up at 5:45, after my flight home the night before got in at 11:45, to work out, and therefore did not read Faulkner, and therefore did not post. Anyway.

This book is not what I was expecting. I read some short story by Faulkner in high school ("The Bear," I believe it was called), that was just excruciating, so I was expecting this to be also. I recall Faulkner's prose being confusing and boring and jumping around in time, and this really doesn't do any of that. It jumps around in time a bit, I guess, but you can follow it with little trouble.

Lena Grove, a young poor woman from Alabama, is traveling in order to find her no-good boyfriend who has gotten her pregnant. He said he'd go on to his next job and then send for her, but he never did (What a shocker.). We get a little dusty-road-traveling time, and then she ends up in the town where she's heard he is. It turns out it's not him, though, just a man with a similar name (Bunch to Burch). Her boyfriend, though, is in the town anyway, going by the name Joe Christmas, which Bunch subsequently makes clear to her. So, then Faulkner pauses her story, aside from telling us the fact that Bunch is smitten with her, and we get the story of the local pastor, instead. Why? Hard to say at this point. The local pastor, Hightower, used to be in charge of the church, but after his wife ran away to the city with another man and then died in a freak accident, they kicked him out, and he now lives in disgrace. He and Bunch, who seems like a decent guy, are friends. After his story is concluded, we get Joe Christmas's story.

Joe Christmas is actually not in town after all, though he was very recently, because he's killed his mistress, with whom he was living (well, in a cabin nearby her, really), and set fire to her house. Ok, so now that that's established, we go way, way back to find out that he spent his childhood in an orphanage, until they found out that he had minority blood of some kind (Let me take this moment to say that Christ, this book has a lot of racial slurs. It's "nigger" this and "nigger" that, every five seconds. Don't get me wrong, I understand the time period and the fact that Faulkner is discussing what's going on in realistic detail, but sometimes it gets to be a bit much.), and placed him immediately with an extremely straitlaced farmer and his wife, who go by the name of McEachern. His foster father basically beats him whenever he doesn't know his catechism, and he quickly becomes maladjusted and angry. He also has a lot of self-hatred going on with the mixed blood situation. We watch him grow up, start beating women, and continue to hate his foster father, until, eventually, the woman he's sleeping with on the sly takes him to a party. They are discovered by McEachern, who confronts him, and he ends up hitting and killing him, after which his girlfriend (who is also a prostitute, by the way) leaves him. He chases her down and confronts her, and she and her other boyfriend beat him up, take his money, and leave him bleeding on the floor.

All this basically establishes his life of vagrancy and crime, and he spends the years between this incident and the present wandering through the South, doing odd jobs and sleeping with girls like Lena. He eventually settles in the town where he's killed his mistress, Joanna Burden, and we get a bunch of her backstory, too. She works for minority rights, especially with African-American colleges, and has a good relationship with the black community in the South as a whole. It's this that makes her willing to have a relationship with Christmas, but also what makes him resent the whole thing, what with his self-hatred and all. They have a lot of confrontations about that, and it all eventually results in her killing herself, it seems. So, I guess, though I'm a little confused at this point, that Christmas saw her kill herself and then, for some reason, made it look like he did it, and then burned down the house. That's really where we are, plus the fact that Bunch plans to take Lena out to the cabin near Christmas's house and get her settled there so she can wait for him. Which doesn't make any sense, but there you go. Oh, also, Christmas is a bootlegger, and has a heavy-drinking partner named Joe Brown who seems eager to bear witness to the fact that Christmas was sleeping with his mistress and then offed her. (The subtext here, too, is that even if Christmas didn't kill her, he was still a mixed-race man sleeping with a white woman, which will be grounds for his execution.) Confused? That's all right, I am a little, too. I think it'll resolve itself.

I'm surprised at the fact that this is a sharp examination of racism in the South at the time. I wasn't expecting that, and I respect Faulkner for doing it. It certainly couldn't have been easy. Also, the prose is interesting and sort of revelatory. He combines words in poetic and unexpected ways, and the sentences are well-crafted, yet simple. His description has all the power of precision without the encumbrance of overly complex syntax and diction. Colour me impressed, Faulkner. I had no idea.


  1. A nice change from the ubiquitous James?

  2. I think Faulkner has gotten a bad rap since he has a famously long average sentence length.

    Why do I know this? Where did it come from? I don't know! I'm from the America where my English teacher told us that Nathaniel Hawthorne is ranked as requiring a 26th grade reading level. Jeez, dudes.



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