There are perhaps pleasanter places to spend your summer vacation than Mississippi's Yoknapatawpha County (pop. 15,611). Places less riddled with violence, insanity, incest, and despair - like the Black Hole of Calcutta, for example.
But since Oprah Winfrey revved up the engine on her literary tour bus Friday and headed South, Americans are turning the 2,400 fictional square miles created by one William Faulkner, Sole Owner and Proprietor, into the No. 2 bookish destination of the season. (Apparently, it takes more than a Nobel Prize and a couple of Pulitzers to unseat Harry Potter.)
With 500,000 copies of "As I Lay Dying," "Light in August," and "The Sound and the Fury" being tossed in beach bags with the latest by James Patterson, it seems appropriate to offer new readers an introduction to the self-styled "failed poet" of Oxford, Miss.
Considering the years Faulkner spent working the night shift in a power plant (where he wrote "As I Lay Dying") and his disastrous stint as a postmaster who was prone to throwing out the mail, it seems unfair that he's missed out on his runaway bestsellerdom. Even after he was established, Faulkner still had to moonlight as a Hollywood screenwriter, since his head-on confrontation of the legacy of slavery and the South's defeat in the Civil War led to some shocking stuff. In the 1940s, 17 of his titles were out of print. That may also have to do with the fact that no one ever accused him of talking down to the reader. Faulkner's version of Southern Gothic comes larded with biblical symbolism and is delivered stream-of-consciousness.
His subject, as he declared in his 1950 Nobel Prize speech, is "the human heart in conflict with itself."
Despite the high mortality rate among Yoknapatawphans, Faulkner vehemently rejected the idea that his work was despairing. "I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will be one more sound: his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."
That contrast between the degradation his characters endure and his stated belief in the ultimate triumph of mankind led the Monitor to headline him "The Paradoxical William Faulkner" in 1951. He makes for fascinating company, no matter the season.
Light in August
If you don't know Faulkner, you can't be considered a "serious" reader, Ms. Winfrey declared when making her selections. Folks who bypassed "Absalom, Absalom!" for Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" or Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" might beg to differ. But if you're tired of being thought a frivolous lightweight by your friends, start with "Light in August." It's not any less tragic than the other two - in fact, it's the most genuinely heartbreaking - but it offers some decency and hope around the edges.
The book opens with a young woman, literally barefoot and pregnant, walking down a dusty road. Her name is Lena Grove, and she's looking for the father of her child. Lena's placid calm in the face of her plight inspires kindness from just about everyone she meets - from the farmer who gives her a lift in his wagon to Byron Bunch, a millworker who promptly falls in love with her. But the novel really belongs to Joe Christmas, a young man of mixed race who worked with both Byron and the man who abandoned Lena. His journey from a hungry orphan sneaking toothpaste to a murderer on the run is one of the greatest tragedies in all of Faulkner - and that's saying something. Anyone searching for signs of progress in race relations in America just needs to read the sheriff's response when he learns of Joe's parentage: "You better be careful what are you saying, if it is a white man you're talking about.... I don't care if he's a murderer or not."
The Sound and the Fury
Winfrey's third pick is actually Faulkner's personal favorite. What he considered his "most splendid failure" is generally regarded as his first masterpiece. Published in 1929, it details the disintegration of the aristocratic Compson family, as seen through the eyes of four narrators during the course of four different days. The novel famously gets its title from a speech in "Macbeth" in which the Scottish king declares life to be "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Each Compson boy gets his own section: mentally handicapped Benjy sets the stage, followed by severely depressed Quentin and sardonic Jason. Finally, an omniscient narrator follows the matriarch of the Compson servants, Dilsey, on the Sunday that she realizes the family is doomed. But the heart of the novel is their sister, Caddy, brave and daring, though that offers her no escape. Faulkner developed his stream-of-consciousness style while writing "The Sound and the Fury." Personally, it's not the first - or even 51st - title I'd grab on my way to the beach. And when comparing Benjy's section with Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime," which is told through the viewpoint of an autistic boy, one can see why Faulkner never felt his vision for the novel was fully realized.
As I Lay Dying
A husband and children go through fire and flood to honor a woman's last request to be buried with her kin. Sounds touching, no? Well, the husband, who may be the most selfish man in Mississippi and is certainly the laziest, wants to get himself a new set of teeth. The daughter is pregnant and hoping to get an abortion in town. The middle son is so jealous of one of his brothers that he missed saying goodbye to his mother just to ensure that the favorite not be there when she died. Oh, and that last request was something in the nature of payback for 30 years of misery and backbreaking poverty. Meet the Bundrens. Or rather, hope that you never do. "As I Lay Dying," told from 15 different points of view, is for those who like their comedy black and completely unsweetened. Faulkner called it a "tour de force," and it's both deftly written and mordantly funny, but there's a relentlessly mean undertow sucking at a reader's consciousness as well.
Vintage Books has packaged paperback editions of the three novels together in an Oprah's Book Club boxed set called "A Summer of Faulkner," priced at $29.95. The books are also available individually, in hardcover as well as paperback, from publishers such as Modern Library, Random House, and Vintage International.