Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Fire Next Time

Most of the time, William Faulkner’s characters don’t ring true; they feel for the most part less like real human beings existing in an actual world than like elaborate metaphors existing in a world of elaborate metaphors. There are a few exceptions, of course; Quentin Compson, for example, comes off as a real person despite or perhaps because of his total lack of a stable identity, as do most of his cohorts in 1936’s Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner’s finest novel.

Absalom deals with the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, a self-made demon of a man who comes storming into Jefferson, Mississippi, in the middle of the 19th century, destroying lives left and right and eventually losing his own to the grandfather of the 15-year-old girl he’s impregnated. It’s a vision of the collapse of the South, depending on who you ask, even though Quentin memorably denies such a reading at the end of the novel.

Among all the Shakespearean drama of the Sutpen clan, however, it’s easy to lose track of the man who brings it all to an end, the indigent squatter Wash Jones. To get the whole story on him, you have to turn to the fifteen-page story “Wash.” I’ve read only a few of Faulkner’s short stories—the big ones mostly, “A Rose for Emily” and “Barn Burning” and “Dry September” and “Red Leaves” and “Mountain Victory”—but I’m not sure how he could top this one. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking character study, exactly the type of thing you don’t expect from an aloof Modernist like Faulkner.

I was surprised to discover that the story was published before Absalom, Absalom!, in 1934. It seems like such a clear attempt to vindicate an unattractive and relatively minor character from the novel that I assumed it must have come later. Its chronological position has the effect of casting all of Absalom into doubt; it makes that novel the story of Wash Jones instead of Thomas Sutpen. That’s just as well—in his way, Wash is a far more interesting character than Sutpen, or at least more human. If Sutpen is the devil, as he’s repeatedly called in the novel, Wash is the herd of pigs he possesses and runs off a cliff.

Faulkner here presents Wash as the dregs of the earth, a man who lives in the abandoned fishing camp that Sutpen “wouldn’t let none of” his slaves live in. But at the same time, “the fact remained that the two of them would spend whole afternoons in the scuppernong arbor, Sutpen in the hammock and Wash squatting against a post, a pail of cistern water between them, taking drink for drink from the same demijohn.” If you read the story through the lens of the novel, it’s easy to read this statement as an indication of Sutpen’s decline—if you take the story on its own terms, it seems more a portrait of Wash’s ascent.

But even as he ascends, Sutpen keeps him in his place. He makes Wash lean against a post while he lays in the hammock, and he treats him as a sort of caretaker—or perhaps even as a dog:
Then it would become dark, and after a while he would lie down on the floor beside the bed, though not to sleep, because after a time—sometimes before midnight—the man on the bed would stir and groan and then speak. “Wash?”
“Hyer I am, Kernel. You go back to sleep. We ain’t whupped yit, air we? Me and you kin do hit.”
So Wash, fiercely loyal and heartbreakingly alone, is a much more sympathetic character here than the novel, even if he has a racist personal revelation or two. (“The Bible told him” that blacks “had been created and cursed by God to be brute and vassal to all men of white skin.”) He has a vague sense that the world is corrupt, not as it should be, that in fact “all men were created in the image of God and hence all men made the same image in God’s eyes at least” and that he should not be left in his own squalor in the fish camp.

Public opinion—and probably my own before I read this story—holds that Wash kills Sutpen because “He thought he had Kernel where he would have to marry the gal [Milly] or pay up. And Kernel refused.” But public opinion, as throughout Absalom, proves wrong. Wash kills Sutpen out of a real sense of justice, of getting what is owed not to him but to his defenseless granddaughter, to whom Sutpen said for no good reason, “too bad you’re not a mare. Then I could give you a decent stall in the stable.” That, as you might imagine, don’t fly.

After he kills Sutpen, however, his vague sense of the world’s injustice flowers into a crushing darkness. He hears the police approach and considers running:
It seemed to him that he had no more to run from than he had to run to. If he ran, he would merely be fleeing one set of bragging and evil shadows for another just like them, since they were all of a kind throughout all the earth which he knew, and he was old, too old to flee far even if he were to flee. He could never escape them, no matter how much or how far he ran: a man going on sixty could not run that far. Not far enough to escape beyond the boundaries of earth where such men lived, set the order and the rule of living.
And so Wash becomes a broken and defeated Cain. He kills the closest thing he's ever had to a friend, perhaps for better reasons than those for which Cain killed his brother—at least it was for the sake of someone else rather than out of pure selfishness and jealousy—but there’s no God in the story to give him a mark of protection, no one to look out for him; there’s only the cold, dark world of injustice, and he knows that he will never get a fair hearing, never get what’s coming to him.

Wash is left with what I suppose he sees as a Sophie’s choice (many readers would disagree): he can either go to prison, likely living better than he did on the fish camp but leaving Milly and her child to fend for themselves in the cruel world that planted them on Sutpen’s Hundred; or he can put a stop to the injustice by destroying the oppressed. And in the story’s horrifying final scene, he opts for the latter, setting the building on fire and leaving his granddaughter to burn to death inside, and throwing his body toward the police swinging the same scythe he’d used to kill the man with whom he used to share pails of whiskey.

I suspect Faulkner gave Wash his name because of its connotations with moonshining—wash is the liquid produced by the fermentation process, something not quite water and not quite whiskey. But the word also carries an obvious cleansing echo, and that echo rings and rings through the final paragraphs of the story bearing his name. Jones, who probably never had a proper bath, attempts to cleanse the world of its evil taint the only way he can think to do so, by a fire reminiscent of the one the Bible no doubt told him would destroy the world.

And something else interesting happens at the end. Wash knows that public opinion about him has already formed and has no hope whatsoever of reforming; he knows when he kills himself and his family that he will go down in the annals of Jefferson history as violent white trash and nothing else. But Faulkner uses the story bearing his name to turn public opinion on its head. Were Jefferson a real place, even it would have forgotten by 2009 the desperate deeds done just outside of town 140 years ago—but Faulkner has put Wash’s version of the story down for the ages, finally providing the justice he never received during his own fictional lifetime.

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