How William Faulkner Dragged Me Into the Sordid World of Writing

One sultry New Orleans afternoon when I was a young, impressionable and still quite innocent girl of eleven, I stumbled upon a ragged copy of William Faulkner's Sanctuary in a dim corner of the New Orleans Public library. A quick glance convinced me this was not something the prissy librarian would allow little me to take home to mom and dad; I spied the word "bastard" on the bottom of page nine, and the same character said the same word four more times on page ten.

I tucked the book under my arm, found a quiet, out-of-the-way nook where I wasn't likely to be disturbed or interrupted, and proceeded to have my world view turned upside down. I prised open the cover and in short order, was spirited into a violent world of kidnapping and dark passions, where women had but two uses, cooking, and that, uh, other use. More alarming yet, it was a world where those two uses were both thought of as commercial commodities.

In the seedy, oppressive, threatening, and yet, intriguing and even slightly thrilling milieu of Sanctuary, the men were all deadly dangerous and mean as snakes, given to randomly assaulting anyone they didn't like. Everyone used bad language, drank too much and had sex freely. Since I wasn't yet quite sure what sex was, I was in a drowning pool way over my head, with no lifeguards at hand.

But I was hooked as surely as a fish on a 100-pound line. Breathlessly, I turned the pages, my eyes wide as I soaked up Faulkner's story. Now, from my vantage point of years, I believe the ineluctable pull of Faulkner's writing was for me more about mood than about language. The dark world of Sanctuary captured me with its glimpses into forbidden rooms where people said and did shocking things. At age eleven, to read the words, "bitch" and "naked" printed bold as you please upon the page was heady stuff, indeed. But mature, snotty thing that I have become, I was neither as captivated nor as alarmed when I re-read Sanctuary recently, and thank goodness. Thanks to Faulkner, it was years before I could look at a man and not automatically wonder what harm he was planning to do me.

This isn't entirely surprising when one considers that Faulkner freely admitted he thought up the sensational plot of Sanctuary strictly as a ploy to make money. By his own admission, he was so ashamed of the book when it was finally sold and typeset that he paid out of his own pocket for the privilege of pulling it off the press and rewriting it so that, in his own words, "it would not shame The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying."

Nonetheless, shameful or not, Sanctuary was my introduction to Faulkner, and his fervid world of sex and adult duplicity. I have never been the same since. When I left the library that day, having gobbled down all the pages like some greedy suckling babe, the familiar New Orleans streets seemed somehow darker and more dangerous; the men passing on the sidewalk surely harbored some ill intent. Perhaps I wasn't a debutante like Temple Drake, but still I felt less safe. I was female after all, and in possession of those two "commodities," and didn't that put me in danger right there? Unless I could get myself home to my parents, and quickly, I was afraid I might get whisked away to some shack of ill repute in the woods, never to be heard from again.

I went to the New Orleans Faulkner festival several years ago (pre-Katrina), to try and get some sort of handle on why this particular man's writing holds me in thrall. As I'm sure most of you know, Faulkner lived in New Orleans for a time, as did I. In fact, the only difference between us is that I am not a literary genius, nor do I have a mustache, at least not yet. But I didn't get any help from attending the Festival; all I did was meet a bunch of Faulkner nuts who were sicker than I am.

As I stood in the airless rooms overlooking Pirate's Alley where Faulkner wrote many of his stories, trying hard to connect to his spirit, (and hoping a little bit of his genius might land on me, too...) I pondered the role that alcohol played in his literary career. He was a famous drunk and popular carouser in New Orleans. One of my favorite Faulkner stories, oft repeated at the Festival, bears telling here, though considering the era when it supposedly happened, it must be at least partially apocryphal.

According to the story, one Mardi Gras Faulkner came crashing into a French Quarter bar, dragging a buxom brunette on his arm. Trouble was, the young lady was stark naked, except for being painted like a traffic light, with a red circle on one breast, a green circle on the other, and a yellow circle in between. On her belly was a large black arrow, pointing down to her, ahem, chief commodity.

Faulkner, who was fully dressed himself, noticed folks staring at them. "It's her Mardi Gras costume!" he shouted out drunkenly. "She's a stop light! See?" and he pointed to the colorful circles on his companion's chest. The bartender decided to play along before he threw them out. "And what's the arrow for?" he asked mildly.

"It's her yield sign" Faulkner barked. Then he turned and pointed at the young lady. "Yield! G_dammit!" he shouted. Before she could oblige, the happy couple was shown the door.

I tell this story only to illustrate my point that there must be some invisible arrow tattooed upon some vulnerable part of my brain, because ever since that afternoon encounter with Faulkner in that library so many years and miles away, I have yielded whenever I read his work...yielded to the point that it became inevitable I could do no work other than writing. But I have learned that the dark world of family turmoil, boiling passions and betrayal Faulkner depicted in his novels and short stories is not the only world, and isn't even necessarily the real world like I thought it was when I first read about it.

My life has turned out to be pretty tame, and I like it like that. But when things get a bit too boring, all I have to do is pick up one of Faulkner's books to find myself transported right back into sweltering Southern Gothic drama. Thank God all I have to do to end it is close the book. Otherwise, I would drink more than Faulkner.

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Comment by p. b. smith on March 23, 2007 at 2:52pm
RJ, isn't it amazing...the power that one book can have on the impressionable mind of a child? I had a similar visceral reaction to Marguerite Henry's King of the Wind when I was a younger child. For years I thought I wanted to move to the desert sands of the Middle East, be a nomad, live in a tent and own a herd of Arabians. Fortunately, that didn't quite work out, but I would still love to own an Arabian. Just don't know if I could get my double-wide hoisted up on the thing anymore...and if I did accomplish that feat of quantum physics, I would probably be assailed by PETA for cruelty to animals.
Comment by RJ on March 23, 2007 at 2:31pm
As I read this I found myself franticly sorting through the files within my own memory for that which seemed so close and so familiar in your story. And suddenly there it was! Forefront in my mind, something I had nearly forgotten until just now. I had a similar introduction with the Exorcist. Substitute my friends house for your library and the Exorcist for Sanctuary and the rest plays out quite the same. Shocked, excited, scared and a bit ashamed, I sat in the corner of the library room in stunned silence, devouring the pages as quickly as possible. The book was old, tattered, and obviously well read. Although, certainly not by children such as myself.

I knew that I had learned things, while reading that book, that my grand-parents didn't want me to know. I hugged my grandpa extra tight that night. I prayed a very long prayer before going to bed, too.
Comment by JackBludis on March 23, 2007 at 5:36am
My intro to Faulkner was Benji looking through the fence and hearing the name of his long lost "Caddie." When I finally understood what was going on, I was hooked.
Comment by p. b. smith on March 23, 2007 at 3:33am
That is very cool, John. I'm always in awe of authors from bygone days who were so productive using typewriters, and before that, pen and ink. My own productivity increased exponentially once I learned to use a computer.

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