After digesting the third Faulkner from the Modern Library’s list, I had high hopes for Light in August and was just a tad disappointed this time around. I get that Faulkner likes the varying perspectives and detailed character histories, but it was just a little too much information not readily digested by this reader.
Set primarily in Mississippi in the 1930’s, the book opens with the introduction of 20-year-old Lena Grove who sets out to search for the father of her, as of yet unborn, baby who assured her he would be sending for her as soon as he found an appropriate home for them.
Along the journey, we are introduced to quite a cast of characters as Lena travels from Alabama to Mississippi with not much more than the belief that she will find her child’s father, Lucas Burch, and that he will be awaiting her arrival.
Faulkner starts off with a nice, easy gait as we see Lena through the eyes of the towns she passes through and then he begins a steady trot that takes us back two generations in some cases as we encounter the racism of the early south and he eventually takes us galloping into a tragic finale for one character and back to a clippity cloppity dusty trail while others head out for a new adventure.
What is most evident about Lena Grove is her persistence. She never seems hopeless nor resentful, but just determined to move on without considering that what she expects may not be what she will find. We don’t really get much more than that, which at first seems odd since she is a central character, but she is the driver so to speak, so is essentially the catalyst that drives this tale.
Lucas Burch, aka Joe Brown is the sought after father of Lena’s child. Known for his wit and charm, he lacks intelligence and common sense, yet manages to wrangle his way out of each hole he manages to dig himself into. He is a true vagabond with no known past and no intentions of working towards a future.
Byron Bunch is at first confused with the sought after Lucas Bunch. He is a lonely and hard working man whose life is without substance until he meets Lena, who changes his life forevermore. He finds his life’s purpose in becoming Lena’s guardian and takes on this role with devotion.
Joe McEachen, aka Joe Christmas is the predestined tragic figure of Light in August. He is introduced at the age of five, already living in an orphanage, where he was abandoned on Christmas. Unsure of his parentage, it is eventually found that his parents are black and white. He is adopted by a devout and rigid man who believes Joe must share his beliefs or be beaten into it. As Joe tries to find his place in the world, each attempt seems to be a failure convincing him he doesn’t belong in any part of it. His past eventually comes to light, but the truth, unfortunately, does not set him free.
Nothing can look quite as lonely as a big man going along an empty street. Yet though he was not large, not tall, he contrived somehow to look more lonely than a lone telephone pole in the middle of a desert. In the wide, empty, shadowbrooded street he looked like a phantom, a spirit, strayed out of its own world, and lost.
He seemed to see her then, grown heroic at the instant of vanishment beyond the clashedto gates, fading without diminution of size into something nameless and splendid, like a sunset.
It was she who trusted him, who insisted on trusting him as she insisted on his eating; by conspiracy, in secret, making a secret of the very fact which the act of trusting was supposed to exemplify.
As McEachern watched him from the window, he felt something of that pure and impersonal outrage which a judge must feel were he to see a man on trial for his life lean and spit on the bailiff’s sleeve.
He stands, sober, contained, with that air compassionate still, but decisive without being assured, confident without being assertive: that air of a man about to do something which someone dear to him will not understand and approve, yet which he himself knows to be right just as he knows that the friend will never see it so.
I’d love to take a stroll or wagon down a dusty road with Mr. Faulkner. I don’t think I’d even need to be at the ready with any questions, as I believe he would indulge me with a fascinating tale or two.
My rating for Light in August is an 8 out of 10.
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