Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On reading Faulkner

At one time I worked in an independent bookstore. I loved that job. It wasn't really like a job because I so liked being with the books, the staff, and most of the customers. (Those of you who have worked retail will know what I mean by 'most'.)

Anyway, one of the popular books of the day was a story that took place in the South and its characters were of the down and out sort. When I asked one of the clerks, Nancy, if she had read it she said to me, "I don't like to read books about poor people."

Her words came back to me this morning as I read two of Faulkner's short stories: "Barn Burning" and "Two Soldiers". In both stories the main protagonists are young boys about 10 years old. In the first, the boy's father is a poor sharecropper and has an affinity for burning the barn of anyone who crosses him. In the second story, the older brother goes off to Memphis to join the Army and fight in World War II. The younger brother follows him to the big city and gets sent back home to "take care of maw and my ten acres".

I will say that Faulkner's storytelling is compelling and the life of poor folks in the South can be heartbreaking, but I often feel that just on the next page something horrifying is going to happen. So the reading is troublesome for me.

And, if you have an aversion to the n-word, please don't pick up Faulkner. He uses it because it was used then. But, if like me you grew up being told to never use that word, then you will feel a frisson of disapproval when you see it on the page.

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