A Light in the Dark – “Light in August” by William Faulkner
William Faulkner’s sixth novel, “Light in August,” begins with a young woman – Lena Grove – who is in the middle of hiking hundreds of miles to track down the man who impregnated her. His name is Lucas Burch, and she’s following word that he’s in a little Mississippi town called Jefferson. Arriving in Jefferson, she meets a man named Byron Bunch (thanks to the similarities of “Burch” and “Bunch”) who works in the town mill and soon falls in love with her innocence and simplicity.
Also working in the mill is a man named Joe Christmas, who’s hiding a secret – he has black ancestors. He’s also hiding an underground alcohol business and an affair with an older woman. The widow, Joanna, is an outcast from the town due to her work getting equal rights for African-Americans. When Joanna turns to religion, and threatens Joe at gunpoint to admit his black roots, he brutally kills her and goes on the run.
There’s also Reverend Hightower, obsessed with the memory of his Confederate solider grandfather. Another outcast from the town after his wife had an affair and killed herself, Hightower’s only real friend is Byron Bunch. On Monday, Hightower finds himself delivering Lena’s baby. Later that same day, he tries to provide an alibi for Christmas, but it’s too late. A ghoul of a guardsman named Percy Grimm kills and castrates Christmas without a second thought.
Lively stuff, right?
In my (admittedly limited) experience as a reader of Faulkner, I’m well aware of common themes in his works – namely, religion and race. He tends to focus on these issues with stories predominately set in the South, an area ripe with religious and racial history. The “N-Word” is dropped often within the pages of “Light in August,” but the book takes place during a time when that wasn’t gasp-worthy and appalling as it is now. We’re talking about 1930s Mississippi here. His narratives are also tricky – jumping around in a style that reminds me of Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy.”
However, no one writes quite like Faulkner, which is proven countless times within “Light in August.” This is why I keep going back. The first Faulkner book I read, “Paradise,” is about the kidnapping and rape of a college girl, and it’s as gritty as they come. Faulkner’s phrasing is the thing that keeps it from falling into a completely despairing work.
One example follows, as Joe Christmas sizes up the town:
“Then he could see the town, the glare, the individual lights where streets radiated from the square. He could see the street down which he had come, and the other street, the one which had almost betrayed him; and further away and at right angles, the far bright rampart of the town itself, and in the angle between the black pit from which he had fled with drumming heart and glaring lips. No light came from it, from here no breath, no odor. It just lay there, impenetrable, in its garland of Augusttremulous lights. It might have been the original quarry, abyss itself.”
Booknerd swoon. There’s a reason the world holds Faulkner as a writer near and dear to their hearts. His words are timeless and magnificent, even if his narratives jump around and his subject matter isn’t all puppies and rainbows.
(FYI – The novel’s original title was “Dark House,” which actually makes a ton of sense. Rumor has it that Faulkner changed the title after his wife made a comment about how August seems to bring a strange kind of light to the south. )
Yeah – Faulkner’s great. (Even Oprah thinks so.)