This is yet another Faulkner reread for me. I took a Faulkner class my junior year of college and did my best, but it turns out being 15 years older just makes these things easier. I also took my time more with this one, so there’s that.
A Light in August is a more thematically challenging novel than say As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury, and it’s somewhere in between in terms of difficulty in reading. This novel is “straightforward” in a sense, in that it has a clear and compelling plot and is narrated for maximum understanding of that plot. But unlike some of his lesser works like Flags in the Dust, The Unvanquished, or Sanctuary he’s not writing a straightforward novel. There’s not so much the stream of consciousness as a lot of his works, but there also is, in a way. He’s deeply concerned with the right way to describe any moment, and sometimes that includes a more primordial narration of the formation of thoughts using the most rudimentary and oblique language as possible to create. Other times he’s focused on the power of metaphor in thought and dialogue.
The plot of this novel spins around a few central characters: Lena Grove, a young pregnant woman who has run off from her brother’s house in order to find her absconded “man” Lucan Burch, Byron Bunch, a 35 year old who believes in black and white morality who is mistaken for Lucan Burch and subsequently falls in love with Lena, Rev. Hightower, a man with a fractured worldview and morality built of maintaining social order and rightness, and finally, Joe Christmas, a light-skinned black man passing as white.
The story that links all these characters together is Lena’s search for Lucas, as well as the disruption of Joe’s life as his outing as a black man leads to several instances of horrific violence.
Faulkner has a keen eye for the interior of his characters, and whatever else might be true about his resoundingly sympathetic portrayal of Joe Christmas, he understands how white people treat and act about black folk.
There’s a lot of interesting elements regarding names, naming, race, gender, and various other topics, but this is not an altogether “topical” book. It’s more or less about everything. It’s truly horrifying and rewarding.