This book was first published in 1925; it is the author's first novel. And it is my second reading of it; the first time was more than 40 years ago, under some unusual circumstances. As with numerous, but not all other second readings, I understood and appreciated it much more this time around. The received wisdom is that this is one of his lesser works, and might easily be given a miss. I would disagree. Although several of Faulkner works should be considered essential reads, "Soldier's Pay" is also essential, for several reasons. It is oh so rich in insights into the human condition. There is a wide-range of character types, many not very "sympathetic", whom I feel Faulkner developed quite well. And the plot development is quite sophisticated, for this being his first novel. Also there are the rich descriptions of the Georgia landscape, over a two month period, in the spring of 1919, at a time of fireflies, and the street lights going off at midnight, and yes, the smell of magnolia trees.
Donald Mahon is the central character, coming home from World War I. He had been an aviator in the British Air Force, and badly wounded. An ugly scar across his face repels most who see him, including, once he arrives home, his fiancée, the ever so flighty and shallow Cecily. Throughout the novel, he is the "object" of the other characters' attentions; he can say virtually nothing. An older soldier, Joe Gilligan, and a young war widow, Margaret Powers, help Mahon return home to Georgia, and his father, who is an Episcopalian minister. If one were to accuse Faulkner of being misogynist for his portrait of Cecily, the defense would offer an equally scathing portrait of Januarius Jones, a "scholar" of sorts, and one who clumsily fancies himself a lady's man. Lesser characters include Emmy, who is the housekeeper at the Mahon residents, with her own heartbreaking history, as well as aspirations, and George Farr, who has interests in, and is enticed by Cecily.
In real life, Faulkner, greatly exaggerated his non-existent participation in World War I. So, in terms of characters, I felt Cecily's young brother, Robert, who was fascinated with "war stories", and wanting to see the Mahon's scar, might come closest to resembling Faulkner himself. But somehow, Faulkner got the war, its participants, and the reaction from the "home front" almost perfectly right. For example, when you really know that the death of a given soldier was anything but heroic, there is an absolute conspiracy of silence on that issue with the family. I also thought Faulkner perfectly captured the wild attractions (and repulsions) of the soldiers, and the women they would be leaving behind, and some would return to.
Sexual innuendo, maneuvers, and the occasional fulfillment permeates the novel. There are the ugly jealousies of three women, and the collective jealousies of all American women. At the Grand Ball, one woman makes the remark, to a returning soldier: "Of course, we can't hope to compete with French women." There are those Georgian spring nights when: "Dew on the grass, dew on small unpickable roses, making them sweeter, giving them an odour... Dew on the grass, the grass assumed a faint luminousness so if it had stolen light from day and the moisture of night were releasing it, giving it back to the world again... Tree-frogs...released the liquid flute-like monotony swelling in their throats, filling the night with the imminence of summer...Fire-flies had not yet come."
Some portions of the novel do seem improbable, which seemed to only match the improbability of my first reading of it. My copy is from Australia, where I purchased it on "R&R" from Vietnam. When I returned to Vietnam, I only had a few days left, and I started reading it. And I finished it in Hawaii, on the way home from the war, since one of the crew-members had claimed he saw a rat on the plane, and it had to be delayed for fumigation for 24 hours. I always suspected the far more plausible sexual yearnings of the crew member, and an arranged "hot date." Nonetheless, the themes helped prepare me for the many misconceptions, and general indifference of the home-town folks, as it seems to be, after every war. Faulkner's first novel, and not one to be overlooked. 5-stars.