Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Book No. 37: The Wild Palms by William Faulkner



As some readers of this blog may remember (Ha! "Readers of this blog." I amuse myself.), I was thinking about this book after the flooding of New Orleans. It's essentially two interwound novellas, one ("The Wild Palms") about a tempestuous love affair and the other ("Old Man") about an unwillingly escaped convict on the loose during the Flood of 1927. I read "Old Man" by itself just a few years back, but I hadn't read "The Wild Palms" since I was in my early 20s. Well, that was probably for the best.

"The Wild Palms" contains some beautiful - no, perfect - Faulknerian sentences and imagery, but those of us outside of our idealistic romantic period will want to smack the lovers at the heart of the tale upside the head. The transformation of the male side of these star-crossed idiots from a taciturn naif into a jaded logonorrheac poet is as unconvincing as their collective willingness to destroy each other attempting to keep their illusion of love alive. Bah, humbug.

On the other hand, "Old Man" is major Faulkner, as great as Absolam! Absolam! and Light in August. In the story, a naive, idealistic young convict (who is similar to the young man at the heart of "The Wild Palms" in some ways) is swept away by the water while rescuing a pregnant young woman during the 1927 Mississippi River flood. The plot unfolds with picaresqueish deliberation, as the convict encounters misadventures, is shot at again and again (in some encounters reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn), assists in the birth of the child while escaping snakes and a mudslide, defends the skiff, hunts alligators barehanded, is caught and released by a sympathetic Louisiana doctor, and ultimately winds up with an extended sentence. It's the funniest Faulkner story I've ever read, and still full of poignance and a sense of outrage over the treatment of inmates and the lot of the poor. I wish Oprah had recommended this story to the general public to be their first exposure to Faulkner rather than her more complicated choices.

Although the chapters are intermixed in the book, neither has much in common, other than the cluelessness of the leading men. "The Wild Palms" plays that cluelessness for tragedy and "Old Man" for comedy (with a more subtle tragic theme). Both reveal the end of the story fairly early on. Both contain passages so lovely and profound that the reader has to stop and catch his or her breath. But that's true of most of Faulkner's work.

1 comments:

Dan 9:39 PM, May 17, 2009  

All Form, Boring Substance
I love your title! I recently read "The Wild Palms"; I kept wondering if Faulkner was so verbose because of drunkenness. Fortunately, I'm now taking something for ADHD and can usually remember the theme of his sentences...
Did he pay any attention to his poor English (punctuation, spelling, run-on sentences and clauses (all of which were massively wordy and tiresome for me) testing my patience) or other contributing factors to his verbosity? The world may never know.

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