Sunday, June 9, 2013

Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust

A year ago, Fred and I took a Faulkner class from a professor at DU, and were amazed to discover this incomparable writer whose work we'd never delved into. Over the ensuing months we bought a number of his books, and recently read (aloud, to each other) his Nobel Prize winner, Intruder in the Dust. It's only 158 pages (11 chapters) but length is relative.

Hanging his ruminations on a simple plot, Faulkner discourses on race, the legacy of the Civil War, the unity of Man regardless of attitudes or external circumstances, time, society, and the actions of the relatively powerless to utterly transform a tense situation.

In brief, the story is that a solitary and dignified old Negro, Lucas Beauchamp, whose grandmother was a slave and grandfather her owner, is jailed as the murderer of a poor white man from the up-county woods. Lucas refuses to defend himself by telling what he knows, and a lynch mob quickly forms outside the jail. A pair of sixteen-year old boys - one black, the other (our narrator) white - and an old white woman go out to the churchyard that night where the dead man has been interred, to dig him up to prove that Lucas' pistol did not kill him.

But things are not as they seemed to be, and over the course of a day, night, and the following day, the boy demonstrates courage, persistence and mettle, learning plenty about his fellow humans into the bargain.

In post-World War II Mississippi, some things have changed while many have not. The country people's poverty and racism have scarcely budged in a century, and white men take it as their right to rise up against any black man who dares look them in the eye. At the same time, attitudes among the townsfolk have evolved, to a degree. Yet none of the powerful will take action until the word of a venerable and proper white spinster requires them to.

Faulkner's sentences (some a page and a half long) can hardly be diagrammed - they are thickets into which you follow a route apparently through, but in a meandering way so compounded with digression that by the time the longed-for period arrives, you just have to stop and marvel that you got to the end (but where are you now?). Just a short sample:

"Charley. Go back and finish your breakfast. Paralee isn't feeling well this morning and she doesn't want to be all day getting dinner ready:" then to him - the fond constant familiar face which he had known all his life and therefore could neither have described it so that a stranger could recognise it nor recognise it himself from anyone's description but only brisk calm and even a little inattentive now, the wail a wail only because of the ancient used habit of its verbiage: "You haven't washed your face:" nor even pausing to see if he followed, on up the stairs and into the bathroom, even turning on the tap and putting the soap into his hands and standing with the towel open and waiting, the familiar face wearing the familiar expression of amazement and protest and anxiety and invincible repudiation which it had worn all his life each time he had done anything removing him one more step from infancy, from childhood: when his uncle had given him the Shetland pony someone had taught to take eighteen- and twenty-four-inch jumps and when his father had given him the first actual powder-shooting gun and the afternoon when the groom delivered Highboy in the truck and he got up for the first time and Highboy stood on his hind legs and her scream and the groom's calm voice saying, "Hit him hard over the head when he does that. You dont want him falling over backward on you" but the muscles merely falling into the old expression through inattention and long usage as her voice had merely chosen by inattention and usage the long-worn verbiage of wailing because there was something else in it now - the same thing which had been there in the car that afternoon when she said, "Your arm doesn't hurt at all now does it?" and on the other afternoon when his father came home and found him jumping Highboy over the concrete watertrough in the lot, his mother leaning on the fence watching and his father's fury of relief and anger and his mother's calm voice this time: "Why not? The trough isn't near as tall as that flimsy fence-thing you bought him that isn't even nailed together:" so that even dull for sleep he recognised it and turned his face and hands dripping and cried at her in amazed and incredulous outrage: "You aint going too! You can't go!" then even dull for sleep realising the fatuous naivete of anyone using cant on her on any subject and so playing his last desperate card: "If you go, then I wont! You hear me? I won't go!"
"Dry your face and comb your hair," she said. "Then come on down and drink your coffee."

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