Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner
(Modern Library)
This anthology came out the year of Faulkner's death --- 1962. The editor is not named.

The stories selected are a curious lot. Four of them are among the best he wrote. Three are so-so, and the other nine should have been left on the cutting-room floor.

"Red Leaves," his first published story is here, and it stinks. It concerns some American Indians and a piece of land one of them inherits, populated by a fair number of blacks. There is a discussion as to whether the blacks should be eaten, and it is decided that no, "There are too many of them." The dialogue is absurd.

Another stinker --- literally --- is "A Rose for Emily," which is reputed to be the most anthologized short story in America. It is well known. Early twentieth century small southern town. Eccentric Emily, dominated by her father. Father dies. Emily alone in her house. Emily courted by a Yankee.

Before he can leave her, she serves him an arsenic cocktail. He disappears and when she dies years later, they find, in her bed, a desiccated body that had "once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now with long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him." Bad regional gothic: Faulkner should have left that to Hawthorne or Poe.

§   §   §

There are a couple of stunners here, including the well-known "Barn Burning" where we are first introduced to the Snopes family, and "Mountain Victory," an odd tale of a colonel in the Confederate army returning to the south with his black servant.

He gets waylaid in Tennessee by Union sympathizers (and a jug of moonshine). There are four characters here --- each with his or her own agenda --- and Faulkner masterfully shows how they entangle and destroy. The very last scene has the black trying to hide from a rifle, in the hands of Vatch, aimed right at him: "He watched the rifle elongate and then rise and diminish slowly and become a round spot against the white shape of Vatch's face like a period on a page."

When Faulkner stays in the south with his cantankerous blacks and wretched whites, he is at his best. Not so long ago we reviewed his very underrated third novel Sartoris and suggested that it is always the dialogue that catches us in Faulkner ... the blacks or the lower-class whites and, "for those of us who grew up in the old south," the "dialogue between the men, ringing as true as a bell." In the story "Race at Morning," the narrator is a twelve-year-old black who is out on a hunt for a buck with his patron, Mister Ernest. (This is Faulkner, so a hunt is, well, a hunt for something else again. Like The Meaning of Life, no?)

After chasing the buck over two counties, they end up where they began, back in Yoknapatawpha County, whose name I dare you to repeat three times, rapidly. At sunset, before a copse, everyone (including the dogs) completely fagged out, there rises this vision:

    he was standing there broadside to us, not twenty yards away, big as a statue and red as gold in the sun, and the sun sparking on the tips of his horns --- they was twelve of them --- so that he looked like he had twelve lighted candles branched around his head, standing there looking at us...

One has to suspend belief, but Faulkner helps us to do it with the grit of observation, and his uncanny filter of place and time. When the narrator --- called merely "boy" throughout --- is to serve Mister Ernest his whiskey, he tells us that there are two: "the homemade corn whisky he drank" and "that town whisky" called Scotch "that smelled like it come out of a old bucket of roof paint."

When the two are riding hell-for-leather after the buck, they run smack-dab into a grapevine lying across their path at saddle level, Mister Ernest up ahead, the boy behind, and it's a scene out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon: The vine catches the saddle girth, and

    It broke, and Dan [the horse] going on and scrabbling up the other bank bare nekkid except for the bridle, and me and Mister Ernest and the saddle, Mister Ernest still setting in the saddle holding the gun, and me still holding onto Mister Ernest's belt, hanging in the air over the bayou in the tightened loop of that vine like in the drawed-back loop of a big rubber-banded slingshot, until it snapped back and shot us back across the bayou and flang us clear, me still holding onto Mister Ernest's belt and on the bottom now, so that when we lit I would 'a' had Mister Ernest and the saddle both on top of me if I hadn't clumb fast around the saddle and up Mister Ernest's side, so that when we landed, it was the saddle first, then Mister Ernest, and me on top, until I jumped up and Mister Ernest still laying there with jest the white rim of his eyes showing.

    "Mister Ernest," I hollered, and then clumb down to the bayou and scooped my cap full of water and clumb back and throwed it in his face, and he opened his eyes and laid there on the saddle cussing me.

    "God dawg it," he said, "why didn't you stay behind where you started out?"

    "You was the biggest!" I said. "You would 'a' mashed me flat!"

    "What did you think you done to me?" Mister Ernest said. "Next time, if you can't stay where you start out, jump clear. Don't climb up on top of me no more. You hear?"

It's this comic writing that pops up out of the blue in Faulkner, a Christmas bonus that spices all his stories --- and he is a wonderful story-teller --- a jolt that leavens the involuted sentences of philosophy, the touch that reminds us that we are in the world of humans where strange things happen, where a would-be nightmare disaster can turn into high comedy ... Jason in The Sound and the Fury, running into a rail car to accidentally fight with a roustabout who damn near kills him; the "Spotted Ponies" ending bundled together in a tiny cottage, racing back and forth; a sixty-year old man and his black companion being hurled from the back of a horse with a grapevine, as if they were in "a big rubber-banded slingshot."

--- Lolita Lark
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