Sunday, 28 August 2011

Reviews Of Books I've Never Read

The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner
Faulkner taking part in the annual Sound And The Fury Parade that his hometown of Oxblood, Mississippi, puts on every year in his honor. Thankfully, he lived long enough to ride his scooter in the last two parades before he passed away and as a gentleman of the south, understood it was entertainment first, dignity second, especially when it came to amusing the kiddies who still line Oxblood's main street on parade day, regurgitating hot dogs and cheering on the festivities.
There are books that are heavy by sheer weight and books that are heavy by the sheer weight of the ideas contained within. Both are comparable for killing silverfish but I like to think it is those books laden down with deep thoughts that are the superior vermin killers. Perhaps it's just a pretension but surely Dostoyevsky's Notes From The Underground is a far better silverfish sniper than say Harold Robbins' The Carpetbaggers. Although I do like the cover of The Carpetbaggers better because who wouldn't take a half-naked woman over a mole with a limp any day, which is what Dostoyevsky's book is all about or at least what I could glean from the first page. The cover didn't even give me that much, appearing to be a portrait of some guy slumped in a chair looking at his footwear and an expression on his face that can only be described as excessive flatulence or maybe just the wrong shoe size. Perhaps that mole with the limp is looking better by the minute. Anyway, I'm getting away from myself or my self is getting away from me, which would look pretty strange in the mirror and make shaving a bit difficult too. It's bad enough getting a razor burn on my real face let alone on my mirror image, which I can't put any cream on or soothe in any kind of way except to suck in air through my teeth in my real face and watch myself doing it in the mirror and pretending I can feel the sucking in of air soothing my mirror face, but anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, of Mice And Men. No, wait, that isn't right, that's by John Steinbeck. I was talking about The Sound And The Fury. But as a point of interest, Steinbeck and Faulkner were brothers (I have proof but it's in a box filled with silverfish and mouse droppings and I'm loathe to look in there currently), Siamese Twins actually, but they were separated soon after birth and apparently Faulkner got all the brains while Steinbeck got the long legs and distinguished hangdog jowls that earned him many a free bowl of beans in hobo camps across America.
John Steinbeck enjoying a plate of beans at a hobo camp just outside of Feeliesburg, California. He's the one in the rear with his back turned to the camera because his unsightly jowls jiggled while he ate and he didn't want them photographed and  ruining the appetites of those who might view the photograph in future years.
 He named himself Steinbeck to shake himself from his brother, William's, psychological clutches, a name he took from Fliston Steinbeck, the famous candy-floss machine inventor because John Steinbeck had an insatiable appetite for candy-floss although during the Great Depression, it was pretty hard to come by. It forced him to come up with his own candy-floss device that he built out of abandoned railway car parts. Sugar was scarce much of the time so Steinbeck had to make do with whatever he could find and he made candy-floss out of the most unusual of materials like asbestos, wood chips and dung from barnyards. Still, from hobo camps to hobo jungles you could hear the cry, "The candy-floss man is coming, the candy-floss man is coming," as Steinbeck would appear on the hillside, silhouetted against the sky, lugging his big candy-floss contraption while big novelist thoughts filled his mind.
So, to make a long story short, the two brothers never spoke again and William Faulkner went so far as to have candy-floss banned from the Sound And The Fury Parade. In a way, it is perhaps this separation of Siamese twins, the falling out afterwards and the bond of brothers forever broken on principles long forgotten that was the impetus for Faulkner's genius and especially in this great novel. For racial disparity and injustice haunted all of Faulkner's work and just maybe, Faulkner found the inspiration for his forays into mindset of the deep south, formed in his characters' minds by history and family ties, finding voice in their sometimes horrific actions and prejudices but also in their downtime, sipping lemonade, playing on the tire swing and just generally being human beings, in the traumatic tearing apart of his Siamese twin and the gulf that exists when two worlds collide and then get torn apart and then collide again, much like bumper cars, but far more serious and with less electricity and overhead pole sparks.
On that note, the novel begins with one, Lothario Benson, who has taken over the family farm in Oxbird, Mississippi. Or maybe it's Oxbow or Oxblood or Oxplum or Oxycodone, I can't quite remember, but it's ox-something or another and that's all that's important here. The farm was willed to him by his father, Snedley, and Lothario bends under the pressure of his dead father's wishes and also his mother, Esmeralda, who repeatedly strikes him with a wooden spoon covered in hardened lard every time Lothario expresses his misgivings about taking over the farm. Witness this wonderful piece of dialogue that fully illustrates the depth of Faulkner's dramatic courage and lithesome sentences so flexible they could easily fit through a drainpipe.
"As God is my witness, your father worked this land, worked his fingers to the bone, worked his bones to the sand, to the mud, to the dirt, to the dung which he thereupon heaped upon the arid soil and weathered the best years of his flea-bitten, whiskey-sodden life for yon children, children of yore that ye may reap the reward and all that he sow and be sown and me sewing socks and plucking gristle from there yonder teeth that ye all may live to chew again and again in the dusk and dust seetling like locusts upon the pasture the flagrancy of wings buzzing and cricking and your backtalk like cicadas chirping in the gullet of some burned out deadened cow skull bone-white and the maggots falling from the sky like rain. What have you to say for yeself boy?"
"I say it and again must I say it I don't want no part of this vile stinkin' farm that shadows me like a grave freshly dug and rife and steaming with the manure of all dead things bowels freshly flushed from the throes of death when it is ventriloquism, yes, yes, I say it again, ventriloquism that stains my heart thumps my breast, the voices sounding like a coon-dog on the scent and buckshot peppering the limp body of yonder duck but I can make it speak, a magic that begins guttural but soon finds its purchase in all manner of living and dead and all that lies between and even the trout in the stream sing my name but barely, just barely and may the sun set and cast its darkness into your darkness and so dark you can't find the doorknob for the darkness within."
Wow! I don't know about you but when I read that passage I just about choked on my luncheon meat. Faulkner's command of the language, his ability to break the rules of grammar and thus break down the boundaries between words, freeing not only language itself but the minds of his characters, is inspiring and dizzying and I highly recommend not eating any kind of canned luncheon meat while reading this book. Just a warning unless you're adept at Heimlich maneuvering yourself over the back of a chair or across an old steam radiator or against an ironing board, which I have had to do on two separate occasions and so Faulkner and luncheon meat sit just right with me. With you, probably not. 
 Also, if you have any pets in the vicinity, it can affect them adversely too so brush up on your animal Heimlich techniques before cracking the spine on this baby. I mean the book, not the pet of course.
Now, let's get down to the nitty-gritty of Faulkner's generational plot line, meandering its way much like the Mississippi, past this house and that, this farm and that yard, this jukebox joint and that hanging tree before depositing its alluvial silt in Mrs. Runsmusses' garden plot where her zucchinis grew to the size of horse penises and the turgid waters roiled and neighed and hid terrible secrets in their muddy depths.With Lothario's marriage to his half-brother's sister's second cousin, Etta Blimpspots, and her undying love and support for his overpowering dreams, Lothario pursues his love of ventriloquism and is soon touring the countryside putting on shows in barns and on ant heaps and bringing crowds in from as far away as Posthole, Texas and Drainage Ditch, Kentucky.
It's a known fact that Faulkner based many of his characters on actual people he knew in his hometown of Oxblood, Mississippi. In this case, the character of Lothario Benson was modeled after his real-life counterpart and inspiration, ventriloquist and potato farmer, Heathrow Haminsod, and his dummy, Mr. Chowdy, pictured above.
He leaves the care of the farm in the hands of his wife's cousin's sister's Uncle Gibble, crippled during the Civil War but his mastery over the growing of rutabagas earns him two gold and one silver ribbon at the county fair. Meanwhile, all is not well on the ventriloquism front. A newcomer to the scene, a dour and taciturn young man by the name of Samuel 'Melonball' Malone, who has not one, but two dummies at his disposal, begins putting on shows in town, drawing good-sized crowds, which is odd considering his rather sombre act and the fact that neither he nor his dummies ever utter a word or a sound.
The real-life 'Melonball' Malone, aka, Booger Fitzsimmons, a traveling ventriloquist originally from England, who began touring the deep south with his two dummies, Sheldon Goldstein and Senor Knobby. He had a highly unusual ventriloquism act in that he never uttered a word and neither did his dummies. The three of them just sat on a stage, looked forlornly at the audience and occasionally 'Melonball' Malone would move the two dummies around a bit, swiveling their heads and sometimes appearing to choke them. He got his moniker, 'Melonball,' incidentally, when he was a professional melon-baller at the Bristol Hotel in London, turning out as many as five hundred melon balls an hour for sumptuous banquets and buffets.
It's not long before the two ventriloquists are at odds, vying for audience's attention and approval. Lothario cannot understand how a ventriloquist, no matter how many dummies he has, can possibly draw a crowd just by sitting on a stage, never uttering a word, occasionally swiveling his dummies' heads but never making them talk, let alone clacking their jaws, but 'Melonball' is drawing them in like a snake oil huckster in Alabama during armadillo mating season.
"What evil has this misbegotten son wrought upon those duped by the fragrance of ventriloquism gone astray, gone from the voice that would throw itself that would speak itself and then speak in the heads of others and in voices those others have not heard before with jaws clacking like an old man on his deathbed speaking last words, teeth rattle to death rattle and nary a word to be heard, mute like the tongues of angels pulled from their roots and put on display, oh, the sound, the fury, the dummy that speaketh not nor rolls its eyes with the great joke that snuffs out all being."
These are Lothario's words, so beautifully constructed by Faulkner, and the reader glimpses the first allusion to the title of the book and its subsequent meaning. For the sound is the sound of throwing your voice, the ability to make dummies speak and the fury is the anger arising from Lothario Benson's perceived slights when confronted by a fellow ventriloquist who will utter no sound. "Oh, the sound, the fury," Lothario bemoans a second time, maybe ten or eleven pages later (I'm not sure which as the pages were stuck toether with either some sort of dried food remnant or bodily fluid), sitting at the kitchen table of his farm, his head resting on one of Uncle Gibble's giant rutabagas and his sheer despair can be felt right through the pages and you can even smell it too, although that might just be because the copy I own is a little moldy. In one of the most heart-rending scenes in the novel, Lothario strips off all of his clothing, runs out naked into the fields like a lamb of God before the slaughter and begins throwing his voice indiscriminately, making rutabagas speak and then cabbages and then beans, potatoes (which have eyes so doesn't seem as strange), carrots, pumpkins, rhubarb and celery (Uncle Gibble, it seems, had quite a good vegetable crop that year). Soon the fields are alive with the sound of vegetable voices, talking, mumbling, muttering, groaning and laughing, the sound and the fury culminating into one great chorus of voices rising to the heavens, mute no more against anti-ventriloquist forces posing in sheep's clothing and then the little lamb is slaughtered and so is its mother and there's mutton on the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next five nights and a little left over for Parson Oobalooba when he drops by on Sunday and so the wolf need not wear sheep clothing anymore nor howl at the moon when the mutton runs out. But Lothario's dear wife, Etta Blimpspots Benson, soothes the tortured soul of her husband, so much so that nine months later she gives birth to twins, Tzitzi and Noncy, brother and sister and it's not long before they follow in their father's footsteps, putting on shows with their dummy, Lord Pomeroy.
Actual Oxblood twins, circa 1949, Snitzy and Rudolph Horfhorf, who used to come out to the Faulkner farm and amuse William Faulkner in the especially bleak moments of his life, like when his dog, Jaundice, died and when his mother's funnel cake batter became ridden with flies. Their dummy, Baron von Plimpy, is now resting comfortably in the Smithsonian.
With three ventriloquists in the family, it's not long before the family farm falls into disarray, and with the death of Uncle Gibble, Lothario's wife is left to hoe the rows and till the soil until she drops dead between the beanpoles one hot August day. This moment is referenced in Faulkner's later novel, Light In August, but in the meantime Lothario is left to raise the twins by himself and bring in a measly dollar from the withered and decrepit crops of his failing farm. 'Melonball' Malone, incidentally, is found guilty of dallying with the devil because of his silent ventriloquism and is promptly hung along with his dummies. The twins go on to become traveling evangelists, posing as husband and wife, clouding the narrative with a mosquito net of incest that Faulkner leaves intentionally ambiguous because he wrote the novel and was allowed to do this, either for fun, for profit or for posterity, it's anybody's guess and your guess is as good as mine or maybe not as good because of my Faulknerian insights, but it's close enough not to count for just some kind of chump change.

Snitzy and Rudolph Horfhorf many years later, posing as husband and wife just like their fictional counterparts, and working as evangelist ventriloquists with their dummy, renamed Timmy from Baron von Plimpy, because of some bad feelings for German names after the war. 
Eventually Faulkner winds the whole thing down in a fractured denouement that resounds like a grandfather clock being struck repeatedly with an axe. Such is the subtlety of his thoughts, couched in the fecundity of his language, or more accurately, crammed into a folded-up sofa bed, its springs broken by time and the enormous rear ends of overweight cousins. Is this the place you'd like to sleep? To rest your troubled and over-sized head? I think not. Neither does Faulkner. And let me tell you, it isn't easy trying to throw your voice from inside the cramped space and metal constraints of a sofa bed. Just ask Sir Lumpy, Lord Pomeroy, Mr. Gobbles or Sheldon Goldstein. Don't wait too long for an answer though because by then you'll be dead or maybe a zombie making cannibal salami in Hell's kitchen. And wishing you'd paid a little more attention in ventriloquism school.