Three Famous Short Novels ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
William Faulkner (1897-1962) is arguably the greatest American writer of the twentieth century. He was a genius, a literary stylist and innovator; there has never been anybody else quite like him. While some of his books are more accessible than others (As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary), his work is notoriously challenging to read. It helps sometimes, when reading Faulkner, to have a “study guide” or at least a synopsis of the chapters to be able to keep up with what is going on. He switches around from one time period to another, and the relationships among his numerous characters are often difficult to keep straight. There might, at times, even be different characters with the same name or with very similar names.
In this volume are three of Faulkner’s shorter, standalone works: Spotted Horses, Old Man, and The Bear. Not much happens in Spotted Horses. It’s about poor country people at an auction of some very wild Texas horses in Mississippi. These people are so poor that buying a horse for five dollars places a terrible financial burden on them. The thing about the horses is that they are so wild they can’t be caught after they’re sold. You don’t want to spend your last five dollars in the world for a horse you can’t catch. “Give me back my money. I wasn’t able to find the horse I bought.” “The owner of the horses took your money and has gone back to Texas. Too bad.” A fool and his money are soon parted.
The “old man” in Old Man is the Mississippi River. This readable and entertaining short novel is set in the Mississippi Delta in 1927, during a terrible flood in which there is much destruction of property, loss of human and animal life. (Faulkner renders a wonderfully vivid and evocative description of the flood.) Local officials enlist the aid of prison labor to help with sandbagging. Enter a stolid convict whose name we never know, in prison for the old-fashioned (even in the 1920s) crime of train robbing. He is soon swept away in a small boat on rising flood waters. He wants to get back before they think he has escaped, but he is not in control of where he goes. Eventually he rescues a woman who—guess what?—is about to have a baby. He saves her life (and the life of her baby) and with his strength is able to keep the boat upright. The man, the woman, the baby, and the boat end up very far away from where they started out. The prisoner wants nothing more than to get back to the relative comfort of the prison to finish his term. The irony is that he gets ten additional years tacked on to his sentence for his adventuring. Talk about gratitude! After all he went through, he should have been released from prison as long he promised not to rob any more trains.
Then we come to the short novel The Bear, which is notoriously difficult reading, at least in the fourth and fifth sections of its five sections. The time is the 1880s, when the wounds of the Civil War and slavery are still felt in the South (more about that comes later in the story). Every November all the hunters track the legendary bear, Old Ben, but there seems to be kind of an unspoken agreement not to kill him. Old Ben has been shot many times but never brought down. Tracking him is a sort of sport, not unlike a boxing match or some other sporting event. Young hunter Isaac McCaslin (“Ike” for short) grows up in the woods, becoming a more accomplished woodsman and hunter than most grown men while still a child. He comes to revere Old Ben as a sort of god. In one fateful encounter with a “legendary” dog, however, Old Ben has met his match. When one of the hunters, Boon Hoggenbeck, sees that Old Ben is about to kill the dog, he steps in and kills the bear with a knife instead of a gun. So much for the unspoken pledge not to kill the bear.
The death of Old Ben comes at the end of the third section of the novel. For the next two sections, Faulkner switches gear for some reason, making the story seem uneven. (He must have had his reasons; after all, he was the genius.) Fast forward to 1888, when Ike is twenty-one. He and his cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, are in the plantation commissary, looking at some old ledgers in which Ike’s father and Ike’s father’s twin brother, McCaslin’s father, recorded some semi-literate entries about slaves they had bought and sold before the Civil War and Emancipation. Ike and McCaslin read the ledger entries and we (the reader) read them too. They go on and on and are not all that interesting. Ike and McCaslin then engage in a long and dense discussion of how wrong slavery was for the South and how the South and everybody in it is cursed because of it. There are some very long sentences here and some very long paragraphs (one single sentence is 1600 words). You have to be a dedicated reader to wade through all this.
Faulkner is Faulkner and he is the one and only. Nobody else even comes close. You either find his work rewarding or completely incomprehensible. After you’ve read one of his sentences or one of his paragraphs, you might have to go back and break the sentence or the paragraph down into its various parts to understand what he is saying. And, as wordy and dense as his work is, he is also the master of the unspoken. Read him and you’ll see what I mean.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp