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Friday, March 1, 2013

Excerpt: Light in August

Kaye Gibbons' Southern voice got me in a such a mood that, earlier this week, I felt emboldened to tackle a Faulkner novel. Light in August has been silently reproaching me for its having sat unread so long on my shelf, so I finally gave in and started it. It's remarkably, well, readable. Funny, right? Faulkner isn't supposed to be readable. Seriously, though, this is not Go Down, Moses or The Sound and the Fury. It has a fairly straightforward narrative thread, more along the lines of The Unvanquished in that regard than his notorious (yes, I said it) other novels.

Now, lest you cry, "Blasphemous wretch," I should say that I did enjoy The Sound and the Fury. Although, I'm not sure that "enjoy" is the right word. "Like" isn't either. And neither is, "Thought it was great," the right phrase. Because, let's face, Faulkner is pretty depressing. He writes in a world of fallen grace, stubborn grace surrounded and often engulfed by squalor. And I don't mean grace in a theological sense, although I don't necessarily exclude it either. I mean it as the sort of grace that comes with true nobility of a refined and sincere aristocracy. That image of the grandmother from The Unvanquished driving the wagon with a parasol in one arm and a rifle over the other is, I think, a brilliant instance of Faulkner's spirit of the South. She demonstrates proud beauty, fine resiliency, and attention to detail and elegance which, far from being a gratuitous superfluity, is a reminder of the dignity of the human person, even and most especially when set against a dirty, broken, and socially defeated world. So yes, "enjoy" and "like" aren't the right words. I suppose I should say that I think that I understood The Sound and the Fury in the right direction and appreciated what I did understand. There. Does that suffice?

But, of course, this is about Light in August. While I would like to tell you all about who my favorite characters are, since I'm not yet even half way through it I think I should probably wait a bit. Once the bad guys do something so heinous that my currently hesitantly-bestowed admiration, stemming from their confounding and intriguing peculiarities of character, is forcefully expelled, I'll be justified in actually setting out some opinions on them. For now, I'll just say that I suspect I shall be as fond of Lena as I am of Sonya in Crime and Punishment, and that Byron Bunch is a manly man. Now, for that excerpt. Enter Joe Christmas:
Byron Bunch knows this: It was one Friday morning three years ago. And the group of men at work in the planer shed looked up, and saw the stranger standing there, watching them. They did not know how long he had been there. He looked like a tramp, yet not like a tramp either. His shoes were dusty and his trousers were soiled too. But they were of decent serge, sharply creased, and his shirt was soiled but it was a white shirt, and he wore a tie and a stiffbrim straw hat that was quite new, cocked at an angle arrogant and baleful above his still face. He did not look like a professional hobo in his professional rags, but there was something definitely rootless about him, as though no town nor city was his, no street, no walls, no square of earth his home. And that he carried this knowledge with him always as though it were a banner, with a quality ruthless, lonely, and almost proud. "As if," as the men said later, "he was just down on his luck for a time, and that he didn't intend to stay down on it and didn't give a damn much how he rose up." He was young. And Byron watched him standing there and looking at the men in sweatstained overalls, with cigarette in one side of his mouth and his face darkly and contemptuously still, drawn down a little on one side because of the smoke. After a while he spat the cigarette without touching his hand to it and turned and went on to the mill office while the men in faded and worksoiled overalls looked at his back with a sort of baffled outrage. "We ought to run him through the planer," the foreman said. "Maybe that will take that look off his face." (Vintage Books, 1987, 33-34)
Why do I always like the bad guy?

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