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On the obligations incurred from eating a plate of collard greens...,
This review is from: Intruder In The Dust (Vintage Classics) (Paperback)
... the "owner" of which was a man who said "mister" to whites, but did not really mean it. The meal was served to 12 year old Charles Mallison, after he had fallen in an icy pond, and the server, who didn't mean mister, was Lucas Beauchamp. Four years later the "bill" for those collard greens would come due, and it would be Mallison's actions that would save Beauchamp's life. "Intruder in the Dust" is one of Faulkner's later works, written just after World War II. The perennial themes of his works are exhibited: his examination of life in barely fictional Yoknapatawpha County, whose county seat is Jefferson, (Oxford, MS) and the continued fall-out from America's "original sin," slavery. From Faulkner's majestically southern mansion of Rowan Oaks, he wrote in fear of the "white trash" that surrounded him, so often identified as the Snopes family, but in this novel they are transformed into the Gowries, from "Beat Four." Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness style always challenges the reader to stay engaged, or a vital clue to the story will be missed. And like those slower internet connections, he "backs and fills" his pixels, slowly revealing the entire story. This is also an excellent "mystery" novel; the particular situations involving the grave seem "impossible," but Faulkner makes it all so understandable, masterfully so, in the fullness of time. Faulkner is certainly not for the "fun read" crowd, nor, apparently, based on the reviews posted here, for sophomores in "Advanced Placement" English. I shutter at the thought of how many students have become confirmed non-readers of serious books for the rest of their lives as a result of such classes.
I am an immense fan of Faulkner, and still hope to read or re-read all his works. This time it was a re-read, after 35 or so years, and fortunately, even the first time was not a dreaded school assignment. There remain the wonderful, original descriptive passages that contain nuggets like: "...and forlorn across the long peaceful creep of late afternoon, into the mauve windless dome of dusk..." and "...if there were only some way to efface the clumsy room-devouring carcasses which can be done but the memory which cannot." But on the re-read I noticed Faulkner's "feet of clay." In referring to a patched roof, how much meaning is conveyed by "insolent promptitude," or a lathe's "ineluctable shaft," or "incredulous disbelief"?
But the real "feet of clay" are political, and there is a three page defense of the South's "go slow" policy for granting Blacks equal rights. The passage doesn't work in a literary sense, in that it plops, "cut and pasted," interrupting the dramatic tension of an enthralling mystery. Consider: "...only we (meaning white Southerners) must do it, and we alone without help or interference or even (thank you) advice since only we can if Lucas's equality is to be anything more than its own prisoner inside an impregnable barricade of the direct heirs of the victory of 1861-1865..." James Baldwin, in Nobody Knows My Name in his chapter entitled "Faulkner and Desegregation," offers the seminal critique of such an attitude: "After more than two hundred years in slavery and ninety years of quasi-freedom, it is hard to think very highly of William Faulkner's advice to `go slow.' `They don't mean go slow,' Thurgood Marshall is reported to have said, `they mean don't go.'"
Upon the re-read I was also struck by how derivative Harper Lee's classic book, To Kill A Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary edition is, down to the two different men, both sitting in the doorway of the jailhouse, to prevent a lynching, as well as even the mockingbird! It is a point another reviewer made, but I had never realized it before, nor seen it in a critique of Lee's work.
Faulkner may be most associated with black-white relations, but he also has something to say about male-female relations. Consider: "...just enough dirt to hide the body temporarily from sight with something of that frantic desperation of the wife flinging her peignoir over the lover's forgotten glove..." or "I am fifty-plus years old,' his uncle said. `I spent the middle fifteen of them fumbling beneath skirts. My experience was that few of them were interested in love or sex either. They wanted to be married.'"
It pains me to knock a star from a Nobel-prize winning "idol," but the "feet of clay" are most certainly there.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on November 22, 2009)