I was on my way home to Alabama, traveling from Wichita, Kansas, where I was halfway through grad school at Wichita State. It was the Dog Days of August, and man did those hounds need water because it was tin-roof hot. My traveling companions were Mike McCauley and his wife Susan, or maybe I should say I was their traveling companion because we were in their car. (We couldn’t have been in mine, not because mine was in the shop but because I didn’t have one.) Mike, who usually goes by Michael but for some reason has always let me call him Mike, was from Atlanta, and he and Susan were headed home to visit his family. Since you have to go through Alabama to get to Georgia, if you’re coming from Kansas that is, they were nice enough to let me hitch a ride. I actually did more than ride; I took my turn driving, which is how I got into a little trouble with the Mississippi Highway Patrol.
We were in North Mississippi, headed to Oxford for the night on some four-lane highway that wasn’t an interstate-and so whose speed limit was limited. I was pushing 80, and it was way more than enough for me to get pulled over and given a ticket by a not-overly-friendly man wearing a very large hat. The ticket stated that because I’d been speeding, I had “violated the peace and dignity of the State of Mississippi.” I was much chagrined to learn this.
Our plan, once we arrived in Oxford, was to see Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home, and to locate a hotel with vacancies. I wanted to find a hotel first, then go tour Faulkner’s house, and I felt it was important that we do this. The reason being that, because of the extreme heat, and only because of the heat, I was wearing shorts, or, as I’d called them as a child, short pants. I did not like to wear short pants (still don’t), and this was years before someone, seeing me in such rare garb, said, “You should sue your legs for non-support.” Anyway, that hot afternoon, I wanted to change into pants, long ones, that is.
Mike pointed out that, time wise, it made more sense to see Faulkner’s house first, then settle into our hotel rooms. But how can you possibly enter the columned, antebellum home of one of the world’s greatest writers (arguably only second to Shakespeare) wearing short pants like some child with a purple sucker in his mouth or maybe blowing a bubble from a wad of Bazooka Joe? The very idea was abhorrent to me. And remember, I had already violated the peace and dignity of the State of Mississippi. Was I going to also violate the dignity, and dare I say sanctity (or sanctuary), of William Faulkner’s home? If I did, maybe I’d be cursed and never write and publish the books I hoped to write and publish. And what if Faulkner was home? I mean I knew he was dead, but didn’t he say, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past”? And if that’s so, and I believe it is, why couldn’t he be sitting in his house, in some shape, form, or ghostly fashion, writing away in his study? I could just see him looking down his aquiline nose at me and uttering in his soft, aristocratic drawl, “You overgrown child, I cannot endure (he was big on the word “endure”) the sight of you. Please vacate these premises.”
Memory is a funny thing, and so I can’t attest to this beyond all doubt, but my memory tells me that I did indeed enter Faulkner’s house wearing short pants, and felt naked the whole time, with the nagging sense that someone in a very large hat would come and arrest me for my indecent state at any moment. But as I walked those rooms, I also remember having the sense that this was not home to the legend of a man but a home for the man himself, who was not there in any shape, form, or ghostly fashion, but whose shoes still sat beside his bed, whose hat hung on a hook, whose outline for A Fable was still scratched into the walls of his study. Before he was a legend, he was just a man struggling to write well. In some ways maybe not too terribly different from my struggle to write well as I made my way through a graduate program and dreamed of some level of success, both artistically and in the literary marketplace. The one difference between us being that I, of course, was not, am not, a genius.
Some readers might say Faulkner’s genius made him unreadable, or almost so. His sentences can travel for days down roads that are hard to follow, and novels such as The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom maybe aren’t the place to begin. I’m no Faulkner expert, can’t say I understand all of his oeuvre, but I’ve read the majority of his work. When people ask me what book of his is best to begin with, I always answer as he once answered that question, with The Unvanquished. It’s very readable and introduces many of the characters you see in his other works. In fact, though it’s called a novel, it’s really a book of connected short stories. He was a great short story writer, and a couple of his other books that are called novels are actually books of connected stories: Go Down, Moses and Knight’s Gambit. There’s also his Collected Stories, which might be something to read after The Unvanquished, or at least the very best of them: “A Rose for Emily,” “Dry September,” “Barn Burning,” “Wash,” “That Evening Sun,” and a few that I’ve always loved, “Two Soldiers,” “Shall Not Perish,” and “Uncle Willy.”
Faulkner’s work looms so large, has an undeniable place of its own. And who’s to say Faulkner’s spirit doesn’t still reside in Oxford? After seeing the house, we drove to the town’s graveyard, and after quite a long search, with darkness approaching, we found his grave, next to that of his wife Estelle. Mike wanted to take a photo, but his camera was in the car, quite some distance from where we stood. He hadn’t thought to take photos of the house. The next morning we returned to the grave site, with camera, and discovered an empty whiskey bottle beside Faulkner’s headstone. His drinking was legendary, of course, and it did seem as if maybe he’d partaken in the night and was now sleeping it off with, you know, the big sleep.
It’s hard to for me to believe this trip took place decades ago, in 1988. I did manage to finish the writing program at Wichita State, and eventually went on to publish short story collections and novels. Occasionally when my books have been reviewed, I’ve been compared to Faulkner, which always seems so wrong and makes me extremely uncomfortable. There’s no way to come out on top of that comparison. But I’ve been glad for whatever attention my books have received. I’ve even done book signings at the famous Square Books in Oxford, a place I first wandered into with Mike and Susan after visiting the grave that next morning. We then returned to Faulkner’s house so Mike could take photos there. I’m in one of them, standing beside a column, dressed appropriately, and feeling much more comfortable.