Williams Tell


When Malcolm Cowley published The Portable Faulkner in 1946, Oxford, Mississippi’s whipping boy had yet to win over neighbors, who referred to Faulkner as “Count No ‘Count” for his elegant threads, aristocratic pretense, and seeming lack of a future. He’d penned his best with only “minor” works and Hollywood purgatory to come, but the collection provided a critical language and spark, laying paths for a drunken 1950 Nobel Prize trek and eventual canonization. Along with well-selected bits from the Yoknapatawpha saga and an evenhanded introduction, Cowley supplied contextual notes and background for major characters. Faulkner offered a map of his fiction’s territory. Since Cowley’s coup, lesser Faulkner studies have more or less spit out the same canonical copy. There are gems, perhaps none more towering than Faulkner, Joseph Blotner’s obsessive 1974 two-volume masterpiece, but for the most part, sustained narratives of less critically blanched American writers—Cormac McCarthy, anyone?—would prove more useful.

An elegant rehash, Jay Parini’s One Matchless Time doesn’t escape its foundational shadows. The Frost and Steinbeck biographer presents the well-worn life story—Falconer to Falkner to Faulkner, unexceptional adolescence and apprenticeship, unhappy marriage, whiskey pickling—failing to account for Faulkner’s transformation from dandified slacker and middling poet to masterful creator of America’s most complex, beautiful works of fiction. Compositionally, Parini’s sleek prose falls into a lulling pattern: historical patch, introduction of subsequent book, critical reception, plot summary, critical analysis, critical patch (repeat).

There’s shrift given to Faulkner’s Mardi Gras dabbling with repeat roommate, openly gay painter William Spratling, and his affinity for a “largely” gay posse of friends in NYC, but Parini regularly brushes away “the slight homoerotic tinge,” even after tanked Faulkner and Spratling paint teenage Bob Anderson’s penis green, sending him naked and confused into the French Quarter.

Exhibiting more chutzpah, Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson play Cowley with Expelled From Eden, a collected reader of contemporary American fiction’s prolific, prostitute-positive William T. Vollmann. Expelled is excellently idiosyncratic, serving as biography, Cliffs Notes, and WV miscellany. The editors link the format to Jon Landau’s never released multi-volume Springsteen box set, Wreck on the Highway, which attempted a mid-career reassessment of the critically lauded Joad-lovin’ Jerseyite. When Cowley introduced the United States to Faulkner, the author had already dropped from the zone—that “matchless time” between 1928 and 1942—but the book did wonders. Conversely, Vollmann seems to be gaining momentum, and by offering easier bits of text for out-of-shape critics to digest, it’ll be interesting to see if a shift occurs in this book’s wake.

The snappy title comes from Vollmann’s favorite Steinbeck, East of Eden, as well as “The Shame of It All: Some Thoughts on Prostitution in America,” in which Vollmann defines post-World War I brothels as an “American Eden” from which the girls and clients “got expelled by moral crusaders.” There’s also the anti-Eden of “Seven Dreams,” his seven-volume “Symbolic History . . . an account of origins and metamorphoses which is often untrue based on the literal facts as we know them, but whose untruths further a deeper sense of truth.” Faulkner had his own fucked-up paradise, fusing fact/myth in life/Yoknapatawpha, and considering the loss of the Old South (“that nonexistent Eden,” which “has been permanently ‘muddied,’ ” per Parini), Expelled From Eden could make a nifty catchphrase for the Count.

On top of excerpts, there are previously unpublished I-can’t-cut-any-more-words letters between Vollmann and his Viking editor, tender coming-of-nerd tales, Vollmann’s tongue-in-cheek review of his own high-Elizabethan Argall, excellent riffing on Melville, missives the author wrote in the ’70s regarding space travel, and info on Vollmann’s CoTangent Press along with photos of padlocked book objects. There’s a lengthy intro, plot summaries, background texts, and an expository time line in which Larry McCaffery offers a world history according to all things Vollmann.

After page count and gritty tales of San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Vollmann’s best known for “kidnapping” a prostitute, firing a blank pistol at his readings, and beyond-the-front-line journalism in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, and a mosquito-infested Yukon. Bush-like in his military service, Faulkner succumbed to social-ladder desires, alcoholic stupors, and macho fantasies (inventing un-traversed flight patterns, a limp, etc.), but was most heroic in his radically masterful retooling of the sentence.

Emphasizing candor throughout his literary project, Vollmann proves a different storytelling sort than the slight Southern chap. In “Honesty” he begins with Montaigne and ends with a Turkish proverb: “Whoever tells the truth is chased out of nine villages.” In an illuminating, largely non-American/ nonlinear “List of ‘Contemporary’ Books Most Admired by Vollmann” (though Faulkner’s there!), two of his three top-spot authors, the Japanese masters Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima, killed themselves—decisive actions very much in contrast to Faulkner’s slower, winding path of alcoholism.

So while he admires “the elusively vast people in Faulkner, who are more than human because they’re language itself,” Vollmann’s self-professed moral link is Faulkner’s contemporary, John Steinbeck. Praising Steinbeck’s sincerity, Vollmann mentions Faulkner’s “honeysuckled tales of incest, miscegenation and doom” that possess “the lonely narcissism which characterizes us Americans [and] ultimately obscures social statement.”