Sanctuary ~ A Capsule Book Review

Faulkner - Sanctuary

Sanctuary ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Many readers find William Faulkner’s work difficult to navigate. His style is very dense at times and we don’t always know at first what he is saying. Whereas many writers walk the reader step by step through what is going on, Faulkner leaves the reader to make certain connections that aren’t always easy to make. For example, in his 1931 novel, Sanctuary, the character Horace Benbow mentions Little Belle, his stepdaughter, on numerous occasions. Little Belle seems to be extremely important to Benbow but we never really known why. Is he in love with her? Does he lust after her? Why has he run away from his wife, Little Belle’s mother? Why does the subject of Little Belle come up with him so much? Why does Benbow have such a contentious relationship with his sister, Narcissa? Is Narcissa his conscience?

These small things aside, Sanctuary is (along with As I Lay Dying) one of Faulkner’s most accessible works, at 250 pages. I first read it many years ago and, after seeing the sanitized 1935 film version, called The Story of Temple Drake, I dug the book out of a box in my basement and read it again. It’s a sordid story about bootleggers (it takes place, after all, during Prohibition), prostitutes, and a fallen woman. Over everything looms the presence of a character named Popeye (we never know him by any other name). Popeye is a sociopath with a misshapen body (he was sickly as a child and never developed properly).

Bootlegger Lee Goodwin operates out of the shattered shell of an antebellum mansion. He has a woman with him (apparently they are not married) and a baby that’s sick all the time. Several nefarious types, including Popeye, hang around Lee Goodwin’s place. His “woman” cooks for them, complains all the time, and takes care of the baby.

Pretty college girl Temple Drake goes to Lee Goodwin’s with a male friend to buy some illegal booze. When the male friend becomes permanently drunk and can’t be relied upon to remove Temple from this awful place, she finds she is in for an extended stay, whether she likes it or not. She tries to get somebody to take her back to town, but it seems that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. She captures the attention of the low men who inhabit the place, including Popeye.

In the course of sexually assaulting Temple, Popeye shoots and kills Tommy, a halfwit who has taken it upon himself to protect Temple. Popeye then leaves with Temple and installs her in a Memphis whorehouse. Lee Goodwin, the bootlegger, is assumed to have killed Tommy and jailed to await trial, although he is innocent of the charge.

At the whorehouse where Popeye has taken Temple, she becomes mentally unhinged. She seems to have given up on being able to return to her old life. Is she willing to let Popeye do whatever he wants with her, or is she only pretending? We learn later that Popeye is not able to perform sexually. (In his initial assault of her, he used a corncob.) At one point he uses a man named Red to engage sexually with Temple while he watches and then shoots Red in the head and kills him.

The whorehouse gives Faulkner the chance to add some humor to the story, especially in the person of Miss Reba, who runs the house. She has two little yapping dogs named Reba and Mr. Binford. (Mr. Binford is a long-dead sweetheart of hers.) In one of the chapters that provides a comic interlude, Reba and two lady friends have just come from the funeral of Red and are getting drunk. One of the ladies has a small boy with her whom they call Uncle Bud who has an unusual (for a child) fondness for beer.

Horace Benbow defends Lee Goodwin in his trial for killing Tommy, but it is a miscarriage of justice. Lee knows that Popeye killed Tommy but won’t say so. When they bring in Temple Drake, she testifies that she saw Lee Goodwin kill Tommy. She is afraid of what Popeye will do to her if she tells the truth. Her testimony seals Lee Goodwin’s fate.

Popeye leaves town but, we learn, his past catches up with him when he is apprehended someplace else for an earlier murder he committed. Temple is free of Popeye but apparently her life is ruined. She is beyond redemption.

Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp

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