Faulkner’s Potboiler

By Matthew McEver

Sanctuary is considered one of Faulkner’s more “accessible” novels. Do not, however, equate accessibility with light-heartedness. Sanctuary speaks directly to human evil. On publication, one critic even called it the most brutal book he’d ever read. While Faulkner’s lyrical prose is certainly evident, I’d like to highlight his balancing act between brutality, shock, and dark humor. The hillbilly comedy, sexual witticisms, and morbid absurdity provide some of the novel’s finest moments because they spotlight the themes of hypocrisy, self-righteousness and propriety in the South.

Mississippi debutante Temple Drake is kidnapped and sexually violated by her abductor, Popeye. What makes this novel so Faulkneresque, of course, that Popeye suffers from erectile dysfunction and “consummates” his relationship with Temple by using a corn cob. What follows is a bizarre parody of a honeymoon as Popeye ushers Temple into the absurd world of Miss Reba’s Memphis brothel. Miss Reba plays matriarch, welcoming the couple, speaking as though Popeye were her son: “I been after him for, how many years I been after you to get you a girl, honey?” (144). With rosary in one hand and a beer in the other, Miss Reba toasts Temple’s loss of virginity.

Fonzo and Virgil’s Memphis visit is a humorous yet plausible rendition of two rubes visiting the big city—a comic counterpoint to Temple’s nightmarish experience. As though extending the honeymoon theme, the two mistake the brothel for a hotel – “Who ever heard of anybody just living in a three storey house?” (191). On finding an undergarment in their room, Fonzo assumes that Miss Reba is a dress-maker and a woman having a fitting must have left her underwear behind by mistake. When the two rubes actually visit another brothel, they fear that Miss Reba may discover the truth and throw them out. Fonzo’s alibi is, “We been to prayer meeting” (197) which is Faulkner’s way of having fun since “prayer meeting” can be a sexual euphemism.

After Faulkner lampoons a honeymoon, he lampoons a funeral. The funeral’s setting is not a church or mortuary, but a roadhouse. Some of the mourners want to hear the orchestra play a hymn, while others want to hear a Broadway show tune. Instead of reverence there is chaos, and the account of the tumbling corpse reads like slapstick. The following scene, with Miss Reba and friends, initially appears to follow convention as mourners return home and discuss the funeral but, of course, the setting here is a brothel—a setting that undermines all sense of decorum. Now learning of Popeye’s perversions, a haughty Miss Reba expresses moral outrage over the shame that he has brought onto her whorehouse. Like previous comic scenes in the novel, the burlesque funeral and ensuing tea party in the brothel are not intended as stand-alone comic diversions but as threads woven into Faulkner’s ongoing themes of hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Fittingly, Uncle Bud, the beer-swiping child, finds all of this hypocrisy to be nauseating and vomits.

The slapstick funeral anticipates the equally-mocking trials of Lee and Popeye (192). At Lee’s trial, Temple appears as a witness for the prosecution, behaves like a zombie, perjures herself, and is escorted away as if she were a bride at a wedding with no cross-examination. An eight minute jury deliberation results in a lynching. A voice from the mob, perhaps speaking for everyone, is not angered by the rape itself but by a wasted opportunity: “I saw her. She was some baby. Jeez. I wouldn’t have used no cob” (294). As the novel reaches its conclusion, Popeye’s trial echoes Lee’s. Popeye has an ineffectual lawyer, the jury deliberates for eight minutes, and Popeye dies for the wrong crime. The reader is as indifferent to this “injustice” as Popeye. When the minister offers to pray for the condemned, Popeye says, “Go ahead. Don’t mind me” (314) and Popeye’s chief concern, as the noose is fitted around his neck, is that his hair is in place.

Sanctuary explores evil and meaninglessness, yet it is unforgettably humorous, sometimes prompting nervous laughter and, rather than serving as diversions, the comic scenes in the novel organically flow out of Faulkner’s tendency to push depraved, impotent, and self-righteous characters to the limits. The novel anticipates what is now recognized as existentialist dark humor, particularly evident in the manner these characters fall into total apathy.

Faulkner conceded that Sanctuary was a commercial effort, a potboiler, “a cheap idea… conceived to make money,” proving that accessibility does not preclude thoughtfulness.

Faulkner, William. Sanctuary. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.


Burning Down the House

Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House is a very useful text on writing fiction that is vastly different from many other craft books. Burning Down the House is a specific treatment of certain issues and themes in writing fiction, as opposed to more general (and arguably more accessible) craft books like Bird by Bird or On Writing.  Because of this, I found some of the chapters in Burning Down the House to be extremely useful, while others didn’t engage me. The sections I found to be most helpful are about talking forks and rhyming action.

Baxter’s section on talking forks discusses how objects take on meaning. One thing that Baxter mentions really stuck with me: “How a person sees the things that surround him usually tells us more than an explicit description of his mood” (73). I often describe a scene and follow that with how a character is feeling. If you can compress the description of setting and the character’s feeling into one, not only will that help condense your prose but it will also make identifying what your characters are feeling seem less heavy handed. Baxter also talks about the meaning of objects when humans are pushed beyond their limits. “When humans are oblivious and oppressed to the point of madness, objects take on the humanity that humans lack,” (84). But exercise caution; it is difficult to tiptoe the line between filling an object with meaning and bloating that object with too much emotional baggage.

The idea of rhyming action is a simple one, of action returning to itself later in a story, but Baxter does an excellent job of presenting both the possible beauty and pitfalls involved in using rhyming action. The possibility of having a story come full circle on itself is one which can work wonderfully if done correctly, or it can cheapen the entire story if handled poorly. Baxter presents the most convincing reason to use rhyming action on page 112: “Prophecy run backward, into rhyming action or déjà vu, gives the participant a power of understanding…a reverse prophecy, a sense of rhymed events, is unworldly and has something to do with insight. It moves us back into ourselves” (112). Through repetition of events, an understanding or insight of those events can be gained. Again on page 112, Baxter discusses how not every story can use rhyming action, because it detracts from the sense of wonder if the reader knows they will end up where they started. “The return to a starting point is only a discovery if you’ve forgotten where you started out from in the first place. And you won’t forget your starting point if you know ahead of time that you’re  bound to end up back there” (112). So in order to make effective use of rhyming action, the character or reader (or both) shouldn’t know that their start point and end point are the same. Another, related danger of this cyclical nature of writing is the possibility of making the rhyming nature seem forced or unnatural. On page 114 Baxter says: “The image or action or sound has to be forgotten before it can effectively be used again. Rhymes are often most telling when they are barely heard, when they are registered but not exactly noticed” (114). If the reader is being bombarded with the same image over and over, they’re bound to be suspicious and some of the magic of the rhyming action is lost. This is an easy trap to fall into, and the danger is only exaggerated in the short story. There are hundreds of pages in a novel to allow images or actions to fade to the very edge of memory, just waiting to be recalled. But in a short story, there is so much less time available for the reader or character to forget; it makes using repetition that much more risky. Rhyming action can be a very powerful tool, but there are many dangers that can make it more detrimental to the story than not using it at all.

Burning Down the House, possibly due to its more limited scope, felt more personal to me than other craft books. It is not as easy a read as many, but there is no doubt Baxter has many good things to say about the discipline of writing.

Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2008.

If you were a stranger, who would you be?

Nathaniel Bellows has this to say about his poem “Move to the City” featured on Poem-A-Day on August 5th: “What can one learn from anonymity? Freedom, flexibility, invention, the chance to know who you are by acting out who you may not be. There is a lot to be gained from participating in the world around you, from engagement. This poem is an homage to the art of autonomy.” And isn’t that what we hope all poetry can be?

When I read a poem, I want it to transport me. Another world, another space, another life…all of these things are possibilities in a very few lines. In the case of Bellows’ “Move to the City,” it is a life alternate to the one the reader lives that is proposed. “live life as a stranger. Disappear” (line 1). The use of the lower case “l” to start the poem makes a statement. The reader is in the moment; the sentence is in progress. The first line sets the reader up for what is coming. If you move to “the city,” you can be someone completely new; your old self along with all of its holdups and issues can “disappear.” This poem not only offers the reader another world, but it offers an out. Here is what you can do. You can become someone new. You can “For a night, take the name / of the person who’d say yes to that / offer, that overture, the invitation to / kiss that mouth, sit on that lap” (lines 3-6). This poem asks the reader to think, what if?

This poem works because Bellows is willing to propose what most of us are taught to repress. The poem asks the reader to wear a mask. To pretend to be someone we are not. And, heaven forbid, to enjoy it. “In one guise: shed / all that shame. In another: flaunt the / plumage you’ve never allowed / yourself to leverage” (lines 14-17). In thirty lines of fairly regular length, Bellows suggests that the irregular can teach; stepping outside of oneself can lead to growth.

Part of the appeal of this poem is its active engagement of the reader. It says, hey you! Get off the train, be everything you will not allow yourself to be, get back on the train, go home by yourself, and think about what you’ve learned. If, “In the end, it / might mean nothing beyond further / fortifying the walls, crystallizing / the questioned, tested autonomy, / ratifying the fact that nothing will be / as secret, as satisfying, as the work / you do alone in your room” (lines 24-30), then so be it.

In thirty lines, using active verbs, Bellows reminds his readers of the freedom we often keep ourselves from enjoying. He reminds us to be in the world, right now.

Bellows, Nathaniel. “Move to the City.” Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets. 5 August 2013. Web. 8 August 2013.

What’s My Name?

by Rhonda Browning White

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” (II, ii, 1-2).

Sorry, Juliet, I disagree.

In fiction writing, a character’s name is more than a mere identification label—it defines her, sets her apart, reveals something (perhaps something otherwise hidden) about her personality. What would Nabokov’s Lolita be like, if her name were Mildred? Does the new name evoke the image of an innocent, yet stunning, nymphet? Not so much. Of course every word in a story matters, but a character’s name is something that, if well chosen, will cause your readers to remember your character and your story for years, even decades, to come.

Annie Proulx is a master at naming characters. Who doesn’t feel a little thrill when coming across the character names in her short story “Pair a Spurs” from Close Range: Wyoming Stories? Who could expect a man named Car Scrope to amount to anything, or imagine a woman known only as Mrs. Freeze to show warmth and compassion to anyone? (150-86) Of course, she doesn’t.

Flannery O’Connor chose excellent names for her characters, even allowing one character in “Good Country People” to change her name from Joy to Hulga as her personality soured (271-91). Nor can we forget the name of the Bible salesman, Manley Pointer—a phallic name representing a man out to screw everyone he meets, if ever there was one.

Think outside the box when choosing a name for character. Avoid lazy tricks, like naming them after your own family members, or choosing stock names like John and Jane Smith. Leave Jack to his beanstalk, too. Make sure your character’s name is age appropriate. Novice writers often choose a name that his popular now for a character born fifty years ago, and it sounds false.  Also, take care not to give your characters names that sound similar, or that begin with the same letter. A story full of names like Kathy, Kristy, Karen, Sharon and Sherri will drive a reader batty.

When you chose names that are vividly memorable, those names may help link the characters (and thus the story) to the reader with some permanence. Reveal a concealed flaw, or declare an obvious trait when assigning names. Take your time in choosing each moniker, even each nickname. It’s important. Everything is in a name.

 Works Cited

Nabokov, Vladimir. LolitaNew York: Vintage, 1989. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straux and Giroux, 1971. Print.

Proulx, Annie. Close range: Wyoming stories. New York: Scribner, 1999. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet.

Get it Right

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

Yesterday, I took an online comma quiz on howstuffworks.com.  I couldn’t resist the challenge presented by the question: “Do you know your commas?” I mean, I am a grammar teacher. I should be able to ace a basic comma quiz.  Yet, I have to admit, I was a little nervous about what it would mean if I did terribly. Fortunately, I got all ten questions correct.  Just to make sure my success wasn’t a fluke, however, I took another online comma quiz this morning on grammarbook.com. This time I got nine out of ten questions correct.  I missed the comma after the direct address in the sentence, “Please, Sasha, come home as soon as you can.” I placed the comma before Sasha, but forgot the one after. So, I decided it was time for a grammar tune-up.

Grammar teacher or not, I think all writers should make using good grammar one of their priorities. One book every writer probably owns is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.  And although a well-worn copy of this book sits on my shelf, today I decided to re-read, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn Trusss. This is one of my favorite “grammar-geek books” because it is laugh-out-loud funny and because it is a great review of punctuation rules. Truss goes beyond the basic reference book by adding witty remarks and humorous anecdotes without losing the main focus of the book.  Her one rule she demands writers follow: “Don’t use a comma like a stupid person.” She goes on to add, “…the comma requires the writer to use intelligent discretion and to be simply alert to potential ambiguity.”

Since Truss is a British writer, some punctuation rules differ from American ones.  For example, in America, the period is always placed inside the quotation mark, but in Great Britain the rules are different. This is hard to get used to when you’re reading, even after the explanation is given.  I also found it interesting that she includes quotes about how specific writers felt about punctuation. Most know how e.e. Cummings felt about capitalization and punctuation, but I remember being surprised to learn that Woodrow Wilson hated the hyphen, calling it: “the most un-American thing in the world.”

Remembering all this has me excited to re-read this book.  I plan to have another good laugh and sharpen my grammar skills at the same time. After all, I have a responsibility to my students and to my writing to know the rules and apply them judiciously.  An added bonus: I’ll be ready for any online comma quiz the next grammar guru posts on the internet.