Concise look at Faulkner; William Faulkner: His Life and Work, by David Minter. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. $16.95.

By , David Quammen is a free-lance writer

The Faulkner lode is one that literary scholars will never grow tired of mining. In the two decades since the passing of America's greatest and most ornery novelist, dozens of book-length critical studies have been published, mainly by English professors apologizing in their acknowledgements for child neglect, each study offering to explain just what Faulkner really intended to say in his 19 novels, and how he intended to say it, and why. Then in 1974 Joseph Blotner delivered himself of the epic "Faulkner: A Biography," running through two volumes to 1,846 pages, a great ore bin of unprocessed detail.

David Minter's book is a plausible addition to this surfeit of secondary Faulkneriana. But the question is whether Minter's is a necessary study, or in any way uniquely useful. The answer is no and yes.

Despite the facts that he was an unschooled provincial genius who made his home in a small Mississippi town, that he treasured privacy, that he spent a large portion of his adulthood either very hard at work or very drunk, Faulkner's life story does contain enough surprises, contradictions, complexities, and moments of pathos to be both fascinating and moving. And David Minter tells that story reasonably well. But Minter deserves almost no credit (nor, in fairness, does he claim much) for original biographical research. The biographical information from which he assembles his narrative virtually all comes from previously published sources: chiefly Blotner's biography, the "Selected Letters" edited by Blotner, and a kiss-and-tell memoir entitled "A Loving Gentleman: The Love Story of William Faulkner and Meta Carpenter."

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Consequently, almost whenever Minter's book becomes particularly engrossing -- as in the description of publisher Horace Liveright's harsh rejection of the manuscript of Faulkner's third novel and the effect that rejection had on the author's mood, and his intentions as he began his fourth, "The Sound and the Fury"; or in the account of Faulkner's wife attempting to drown herself on their honeymoon -- a glance back at the notes reminds us disappointing that the facts come straight from Blotner.

In its critical assessments the book offers still less. Minter's exegeses of early and middle novels are sound but not especially illuminating. On "Light in August" and "Absalom, Absalom!," where much might yet be said about technique, he says little, and none of it very penetrating. Only in considering the badly flawed later novels and the changes in Faulkner's powers and perspective that might have been linked to those failures, does Minter provide flickers of valuable insight. He says for instance that Faulkner's movement "toward a fiction of ideas, toward more overt ideological awareness and greater moral directness, had accelerated first with the coming of old age and weariness, then with the coming of World War II, and again with the coming of fame: as podiums began multiplying, his need to utter proclamations had increased." In "A Fable" we see the consequences of this process.

Some of David Minter's book is original, and some of it is interesting; but overall it is diminished by the fact that most of the interesting parts aren't original, and most of the original parts aren't interesting. Its virtues as a biography consist mainly in being much shorter and more tightly focused than Blotner's. As a tool for understanding Faulkner's art and craft it will tell you far less than another rereading of "Absalom, Absalom!"

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