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Not as effective as it could have been
on 10 October 2008
This novel is, in form, a thriller with a classic thriller plot- the fight to prove the innocence of a man accused of a crime he did not commit. (Alfred Hitchcock used this plot in a number of his films, and "Intruder in the Dust" was itself made into a very good film by Clarence Brown in 1949, only a year after its publication). Faulkner takes this basic plot and uses it to explore the problem of racism in America's Deep South; Harper Lee was later to take a similar plot, and use it for a similar purpose, in "To Kill a Mockingbird".
The book is set in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County and its capital, Jefferson, based upon the real Lafayette County and Faulkner's own home town of Oxford. The innocent man wrongly accused is Lucas Beauchamp, an elderly, widowed black farmer. Although Beauchamp is honest and respectable, he is resented by many whites because he refuses to "behave like a nigger", that is to say behave in a servile manner. When a white man named Vinson Gowrie is shot dead, Beauchamp is accused of the crime. Gowrie was from Beat Four, a wild, hilly district of the county, whose white inhabitants are noted for their lawless ways and their ingrained prejudices against blacks. A mob, mostly members of Gowrie's extended family, gathers in Jefferson, threatening to break into the jail and lynch Beauchamp.
The story is told through the eyes of Charles Mallison, the sixteen-year-old nephew of Gavin Stevens, the relatively liberal white lawyer who acts for Beauchamp. Charles, who regards himself as being in Beauchamp's debt ever since, four years earlier, the old man rescued him after he fell in a stream, sets out to prove that Beauchamp did not fire the fatal shot. Together with his black friend Aleck and Miss Habersham, an elderly spinster (did Faulkner derive her name from Dickens' Miss Havisham?) he makes the dangerous body to Beat Four to exhume the body of the murdered man- and makes a surprising discovery.
Racial issues play an important part in Faulkner's work; indeed, it would probably be difficult for any Southern writer to avoid them altogether. His own views on the topic, however, seem to have been rather mixed. On the one hand he was an anti-racist, regarding the intolerant prejudice of many white Southerners as an affront to both decency and rationality. On the other hand, he was himself a proud Southerner, conscious of his family's Confederate heritage; his great-grandfather, Colonel William Falkner (thus spelt), had been a Confederate hero in the Civil War. In this novel Faulkner himself seems to adopt what might be called a neo-Confederate position, believing that, if the South could not be an independent, sovereign state it should at least form a culturally autonomous unit within the USA and have the right to deal with its own problems without interference from the North. He devotes several pages of the novel to his thesis that attempts by outsiders to combat racism in the south had actually been counter-productive and that black Southerners would never achieve equality until white Southerners were allowed to address the issue on their own terms.
The novel was written in the late forties, before the rise of the Civil Rights movement, and I think that Faulkner was wrong about race. The large-scale exodus of rural Southern blacks to Northern industrial cities in the first half of the twentieth century meant that race relations could no longer (if indeed they ever could) be thought of as solely a Southern issue. Since 1948 race relations in America have seen an immense change for the better; as I write this in October 2008 it seems quite likely that next month Barack Obama will not only be elected America's first black President but will also carry several Southern states. This change would not have been possible without the Civil Rights movement and the active involvement of Northerners, both black and white, and of the institutions of the Federal government.
Despite my disagreements with him, I nevertheless found Faulkner's analysis of the South's racial problems a stimulating and thought-provoking one. The characters are, for the most part, memorable and powerfully drawn. I did not, however, altogether enjoy this book, largely because of the eccentricities of the prose style that the author adopts here, a prose style characterised by long, rambling (and often syntactically disorganised) sentences, sometimes extending over several pages. He also has a weakness for obscure vocabulary items.
Faulkner was, presumably, aiming at the sort of stream-of-consciousness effect he had used to good effect in other, better, novels, such as "As I Lay Dying". This style can be a valuable tool for showing us the world through the eyes of a fictional character or, in the case of "As I Lay Dying" which uses first-person multiple-narrator technique, through the eyes of a string of different characters. When stream-of-consciousness is used to represent the writer's own authorial voice, it becomes much less effective. "Intruder in the Dust" is a third-person narrative, and, although Charles is the central character, we are not always certain if it is his voice we are hearing, or the author's. As a result of this confusion, and of his often impenetrable syntax, the author's train of thought is in places difficult to follow, which means that, despite its interesting themes, "Intruder in the Dust" is not as effective a book as it could have been.