After suffering through As I Lay Dying in college I had decided that I would never again read William Faulkner (WF). For years after, whenever I chanced across a WF novel I would wonder why people read him. I thought he was just too malevolent.
Three or four years ago, I happened upon an old copy of Light in August (LIA) at my mother-in-law Alison’s house. I remember thinking that even if it was Faulkner I could still satisfy, through his writing, my hankering to commune with an earlier, simpler time. (I get in this mood sometimes). Alison, a wonderful southerner from Mississippi, gifted me Faulkner’s tome, and I took it home.
I must have read ten or fifteen pages before that old feeling of disgust with WF came over me again. The first pages are about very pregnant and seemingly simple-minded woman, Lena Grove. Lena is trekking barefoot from Alabama to Mississippi looking for Lucas Burch, the man who knocked her up. Along the way, she tells the people who help her that Lucas Burch left to find a better job to support her and the baby, and that he’ll marry her when they meet up. And she really believes it, though everyone else doesn’t. I put LIA down determined not to waste my time reading about stupid people.
Recently the desire to immerse myself in classic American fiction came over me again. Maybe because I am now older, wiser, and more patient, but this time LIA did appeal to me.
Faulkner has a subtle and sly sense of humor which he puts to good use writing about the most ridiculous situations; in this case: Lena Grove’s. His style is at once dead pan and earnest. It is only after reflecting upon the story that I realized there might be more to WF's writing than I first thought. The pages about Reverend Hightower’s galloping grandfather, by the way, are hilarious. And Lena's “My, my. A body does get around,” is one of the funniest lines in all of literature (that I know of.)
Though WF writes a lot about small-town racists, he also writes about sensitive people who care about justice. The POV character, Byron Bunch, is a good example of a moral person who seeks to do the right thing. WF's characters are deeply drawn, real flesh and blood people. His literary voice and choice or words are truly unique.
The plot of LIA held my interest. I was curious to see how the many threads Faulkner had woven would resolve. Does Lena find her man? If she does, how he will he react to her? Why did the Preacher’s wife leave him and how did she die? Is Lena’s man a killer? Or was it his bootlegger partner, Joe Christmas, the ruthless “black” man who did the killing? And will Bunch be satisfied in love or not?
Negatives? Some parts of LIA could benefit from a major haircut—Joe Christmas’s childhood, the Burden family history, and minor character Grimm’s history, for example.
Lastly, Faulkner shows how the absurdity and evil of racial prejudice leads to the mental enslavement of those who hold these ideas. (A pretty profound insight, if you ask me.) The plot, the rich characterization, and the alternating sardonic and poignant tone—together with a deep understanding of the southern mindset in racially troubled times—make for a memorable read.
If you do try Light In August please do return to post your comments here. I’d love to hear your reaction.