Milk and honey for old Faulknerians

I had the odd surprise the Christmas before last of having a sister-in-law press upon me enthusiastically her galley copies (no less!) of the then forthcoming Howard Bahr Civil War novel, the Judas Field. She was no ACW buff. Bahr was coming on strong indeed.

I had read Year of Jubilo and knew Bahr, a Mississippian, to be a self-conscious Faulknerian, without myself having read enough Faulkner to tell where the overlaps and deviations might be occurring. The dense, immensely inventive language and imagery, the lyrical poetry as it were, was top flight, but the story structure and violence seemed rickety. Whatever he's taking from Faulkner (and presumably making his own), Howard Bahr keeps getting the New York Times to rank his Civil War literature among its "Notable Books." I am beginning to think that Faulkner's style opens doors in publishing that would otherwise be closed.

The great American novelist Shelby Foote used to pre-empt criticisms of his own style by openly acknowledging his debt to Faulkner. In the scores of interviews he gave - as a fiction writer - he mentions Faulkner in nearly every one. Otherwise, Foote was stingy with his praise of new talent. If interviewers named Percy or Faulkner or Fitzgerald, Foote would oblige them with observations. When asked to name contemporaries he admired, I can recall no name that he ever gave up except one - that of Cormac McCarthy. It stuck with me.

That must have been about the time of the release of McCarthy's first novel the Orchard Keeper (1965), appearing almost ten years after Foote's heyday. McCarthy's editor at that time was Faulkner's editor, Albert Erskine. I am reading it now and it is immensely Bahr-like, or rather Faulknerian; or perhaps it is Erskinian. I took it up out of curiosity, having recently seen the film No Country for Old Men. I was unable to spot the root of a good novel in this acclaimed "faithful" adaptation and wanted to run a little Shelby Foote sanity check.

Old Men (the film) is the cartoonish, Disneyfied rendition of Faulknerian motifs in a Southwest setting with absurd, Rabelaisian layers of violence. I say "Faulknerian" in the popular sense, not in the informed reader sense, because I am not an informed reader of Faulkner. Old Men is what you might expect in a comic book's exploration of what we call Faulknerian literature (in the general culture).

Orchard, however, is holding together as a good read. We shall see.

Hemmingway once said of composer George Antheil something like, I prefer my Stravinsky neat. Sooner or later, these Faulknerians are going to drive me to the straight whiskey. That should be good for another post.

Top: Faulkner; middle, Bahr; below, McCarthy as he was when Foote read him.