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Soldier's Pay

Soldier's Pay - William Faulkner Shit. This is why I don't like reviewing fiction. See, with nonfiction, you always have the outside world to turn to, to help you stay rooted. Was the information presented accurate? Is it supported by outside references? Does this book have implications we should be aware of, or insights which may be instructive? Things happening in the real world don't have any inherent context, so you get to decide for yourself how best to interpret them. It's all so clinical and analytic and neat in nonfiction. Fiction, well fiction in the vein this book is written in, is just messy and confusing. You aren't in the real world; you're in the author's mind, so there is a sort of implied context to things... the author’s intent. Ultimately, you either buy it and go along, or you don't. In Soldier’s Pay, it’s not clear where Faulkner is taking you, but you don’t complain, because you’re meeting characters that hold your interest, and the narration progresses pleasantly enough at first. He’s populated the story with characters he cares about. People he hopes you care about. And you do.IF YOU DON’T LIKE SPOILERS, YOU SHOULD LEAVE NOW, BECAUSE THE REST IS FILLED WITH SPOILERS (with a little bit of commentary thrown in)So this is the story of Lt. Donald Mohan, a young soldier returning home from World War I France after sustaining a severe head injury whose sequellae are slowly robbing him of his intellect, his memories, and his personality. He also has a disfiguring facial scar which shocked strangers and family alike. Everybody around him is grimly aware that he only has a few weeks -maybe months- to live, but he is oblivious. As the story develops, he goes from speaking short sentences to a few words, until eventually he barely speaks at all. It is no spoiler to tell you that he dies- Faulkner is quite open about that inevitability. But through exposition, we learn all sorts of things about the sort of person Donald used to be… He was an easy-going guy, bright and energetic. Had a way with the ladies. He joined the war to learn how to fly, and felt all the romanticism about freedom that goes with flight. He was a well-adjusted, fun-loving kid who wasn’t even particularly disturbed by the war, viewing most of it as he did from 800 feet up in the air. Until the crash. Maybe not quite a three-dimensional character, but you like him well enough. To borrow a phrase from the 2000 Presidential election, Lt. Donald Mohan is the sort of guy you might like to share a beer with.Assisting Donald on his trip home to rural Georgia is Private Joe Gilligan: a “stand-up fellow” whose every action bespeaks humble beginnings, Mom, baseball and apple pie. Okay, old Joe is even less multifaceted than the Lieutenant, but you like having him around. He’s 100% sidekick material, but not in a needy, cloying Robin way, but rather in a respectable, nearly-coequal Robin sort of way. On the train journey from New York to Georgia, the soldiers are joined by war widow Margaret Powers. Sexy, complex Margaret’s back-story features so much drama and subsequent baggage, she could easily be a character in an Aaron Spelling teen soap opera. She has a sophistication the others don’t, and is worldly wise enough to watch out for her companions without them knowing she is doing so. Faulkner has me on the line at this point; I like these people. What? There’s more?Indeed! There’s Donald’s cheery widowed father and country pastor Rev Mahon. There’s the Reverend’s intellectual sparring mate and town letch Januarius Jones. There’s Donald’s trophy fiancé and psycho-slut Southern belle, Cecily. And his childhood playmate, swimmin’ hole girl-buddy (with one-time benefits, it is hinted) Emily, who harbors a poorly-concealed continuing crush on him. Some of this might sound corny or stereotyped, but it works. Maybe it’s the fluid dialogue. Maybe it’s Faulkner’s engrossing and much-lauded (perhaps over-dissected) “cumulative syntax” writing style, but I’m in. I’m ready. Interesting things are supposed to happen now. Meaningful things. This is a book about World War I, written in 1926, after all. Donald has to be an allegorical figure representing the flower of youth, wasted in a needless and horrible war, right? Rev Mahon and Januarius Jones are the forever-battling Yin and Yang of innocent traditional sensibilities and the cold, cynical brain of the modern age, right? What’s Margaret? Will she find redemption in some clever and gratifying way? What about Cecily? …don’t’ think I’ve forgotten about the healing power of fucking! If ever Faulkner had an opportunity to use THPOF, it was here. I didn’t know where Soldier’s Pay was going, but I was ready! I was sitting out on the back deck Saturday afternoon, at that point where it was still warm and comfortable out, but the sun had sunken below the tree line, and was out of my eyes. My bird was on my shoulder, a cold beer on the table next to me. I was just thinking “Lay on that sweet literature, Faulkner, I’m ready! Pour your honeyed cup of flowing language and deeply-significant imagery all over me!”And then he didn’t. A lot of random shit happened, but it wasn’t fulfilling. Cecily equivocated between running off with her wartime lover, George Farr, and making good on her promise to marry Donald. (which an improbably large number of people still wanted to hold her to, despite the fact that Donald didn’t remotely remember her, and probably didn’t even know what marriage was by the time they were reunited) Januarius Jones served no purpose other than to pointlessly sexually harass every woman in the book. Rev. Mohan progressed through Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grieving. Margaret… okay, I won’t spoil that part, if only because I don’t understand it. Joe stood by the Lieutenant to the end, and defended Emily from Mr. Jones’ advances. Everybody played their predictable parts, with no great surprises, insights or revelations. As the remaining pages grew thinner and thinner with my progress, I was readying myself for a bang-up ending. W.F. wouldn’t just waste good characters on this meandering story, would he? Two more pages pass… only six more to go…. Could he?……two pages left… (done) Yeah, that’s what he did.So back to my commentary on fiction: If this were a true story… well, …shit happens. It didn’t work out the way I wanted, but whatcha’ gonna do? You take it all in, and try to extract some sort of lesson to salvage some good from a tragedy. But you can’t do that with fiction. Faulkner dreamed all this stuff up, and then he told it to me. …Why’d he do that? He must have thought it was worth telling.What we have here is a failure to communicate. (Cool Hand Luke, anybody?)I respect Faulkner way too much to say he wrote a stupid story. How could I give him three stars? He's a five-star writer! You want your fill of Faulknerian cumulative syntax? This book is full of it! Check out page 162: “George Farr, from the outer darkness, glowered at her, watching her slim body cut by a masculine arm, watching her head beside another head, seeing her limbs beneath her silver dress anticipating her partner’s limbs, seeing the luminous plane of her arm across his black shoulders and her fan drooping from her arched wrist, like a willow at evening. How about this one on page 234: “There were fair days when the sun, becoming warmer and warmer, rising, drank off the dew, and flowers bloomed like girls ready for a ball, then drooped in the languorous fulsome heat like girls after the ball; when earth, like a fat woman, recklessly trying giddy hat after hat, trying a trimming of apple and pear and peach, threw it away; tried narcissi and jonquil and flag: threw it away- so early flowers bloomed and passed and later flowers bloomed to fade and fall, giving place to yet later ones. How’s this one on page 202: “Lying on her back in her bed, in her dark room she, too, heard the hushed sounds of night, smelled the sweet scents of spring and dark and growing things: the earth, watching the wheel of the world, the terrible calm, inevitability of life, turning through the hours of darkness, passing its dead center point and turning faster, drawing the waters of dawn up from the hushed cistern of the east, breaking the slumber of sparrows.“ …Oh yeah…. That’s the good stuff, right there… Just like that…...Anybody have a cigarette?But what am I supposed to make of this book? Am I a chump because I don’t “get” Faulkner? I’m sure there are a thousand interesting conversations out there I could have with people who love this book. Hell, that’s one of the pleasures of reading! It is the major draw of GR! But that’s not what’s happening here. I don’t want to show up empty-handed. I have to bring something to the table. Otherwise, it’s like looking up the answers to a difficult crossword puzzle. Books are supposed speak to readers on an individual level, especially fiction, because it has, after all, been meticulously constructed to do so. When that doesn’t happen, something has gone wrong. William Faulkner was trying to tell me something, and I still don’t know what it was. Fuck. Where’s that book I saw laying around here about the CIA in Argentina?