I first bought "Go Down, Moses" for an undergraduate course in American Literature, read "The Bear" as required, and quickly forgot about the rest of the book. This Thanksgiving I picked it up again as a replacement for my usual airport-bookstore holiday reading. Thank goodness! Nothing like some heavy-duty race and environmental issues to spice up your turkey and stuffing.
Faulkner has always been a pleasant read for me, because I find it quite challenging. "Go Down, Moses" is no exception. In particular, the genealogy of the McCaslin-Edmonds-Beauchamp family causes no end of confusion. You will encounter characters named McCaslin Edmonds, Carothers McCaslin, Carothers McCaslin Edmonds, etc... (I found drawing a family tree helped me immensely)! Furthermore, the narrative is hardly linear; characters jump around in space and time, tell stories of other peoples' experiences in the midst of their own reminiscences, and in general relate their tales in a manner that will keep you constantly flipping back and forth through the book. That being said, I happen to *enjoy* books like this, where the reader is not a passive recipient of information but actively engaged in the process of determining plot, characters, and truth. I like this style because it reminds me of how we construct narratives in our own minds. We go off on tangents, we ramble endlessly before returning suddenly to our original subject, we remember things as they occur to us more often than we do in chronological order. Faulkner is more psychologist than novelist: he puts us inside the minds of his characters and lets them tell the story for themselves. If you want a clear-cut, action-driven story instead of a thoughtful and intimate history, Faulkner is not for you.
For those still with me, the particular thoughtful and intimate history portrayed in "Go Down, Moses" is that of a Mississippi plantation family and their relationships with their slaves, their land, and their own histories from the antebellum era to the Depression. As many prior reviewers have pointed out, this is indeed a book about race, and I have yet to see a more chilling, touching, and humanly accurate description of race relations in the South. But in my mind an equally crucial, yet often-overlooked, theme of "Go Down, Moses" is the issue of man's relation to land, ownership, and the natural world. Faulkner's descriptions of the virgin Mississippi forest and the vanishing Delta region are both beautiful and powerful, and I think contribute equally to the book in providing it with its distinctive flavor and voice.
As one reviewer has previously mentioned, reading "The Bear" as a standalone story is simply not sufficient. For one, it is the longest section by far in the book, and new readers of Faulkner may easily lose track of the story, or just as easily lose interest altogether. Furthermore, the remainder of this excellent work provides a framework for an understanding and identification with the characters and the landscape of rural Mississippi that they inhabit. Many people - including myself - initially mistake "Go Down, Moses" for a collection of short stories, and this is certainly understandable. Each section of the book *can* be read as a single story, but I wouldn't recommend it. I would recommend (as I did this second time around), reading all the sections in order, starting with "Was". I think this narrative is as fine as any for demonstrating Faulkner's unusual narrative style and flowing, stream-of-consciousness language. If you like "Was," you will almost certainly like the rest of this book; if you like the whole book, you will almost certainly like the majority of Faulkner's works (particularly "The Sound and the Fury," which I cut my Faulkner-loving teeth on in high school).
In the final analysis, however, I think this book serves as the best possible introduction to Faulkner. If you're not sure how you'll feel about his writing, you certainly can read a few sections and see what you think, without feeling completely lost. Faulkner's writing is in top form here, and his characters are compelling, touching, and as always somewhat flawed - they're so human, it's enough to make you... keep reading.