Dry September by William Faulkner, 1931
The magic trick:
Making the story of Southern race hatred personal, not political
I mean, realistically, the trick here is writing like William Faulkner. Check out this opening sentence: “Through the bloody September twilight, aftermath of sixty-two rainless days, it had gone like a fire in the dry grass – the rumor, the story, whatever it was.” Damn. That, my friends, is how you start a story.
Moving on from that impossible-to-define magic, however, we can at least assess the way Faulkner makes this story – a portrait of Southern small-town racist violence that can be seen as a kind of template for To Kill A Mockingbird – personal, not political. We can think of racism as an American institution, something so widespread over so much space and time, based on so many historic events and circumstances that it is almost impossible to quantify. And that’s right and accurate, unfortunately. What Faulkner does here, though (and throughout all his work), is break down the institution of racism into personal, and often petty, problems.
That first sentence sets up the scenario. The town has been struggling through a two-month drought. People are on edge. Tempers are flaring. The white men in the barbershop are looking for a reason to be mad, or rather, they are looking for a way to take out their anger.
The story’s final chapter drives that point home even further. McLendon arrives home from the night of violence, and the reader is surprised (or at least I was) to find his story expanding into a fractured family life. It is clear his wife does not trust him. She’s waiting up for him as if this coming home late thing is a pattern. There is some kind of dark past there. He then abuses her verbally and physically. His horrible, racist acts and attitudes from earlier in the story are part of a bigger personal life filled with self-loathing and anger. “Dry In September” makes us feel like racism is both infinitely bigger than one person and yet much smaller than one town’s history at the same time. And that’s quite a trick on Faulkner’s part.
The barber picked the cloth from the floor. He began to fold it neatly. “Boys, don’t do that. Will Mayes never done it. I know.”
“Come on,” McLendon said. He whirled. From his hip pocket protruded the butt of a heavy automatic pistol. They went out. The screen door crashed behind them reverberant in the dead air.
The barber wiped the razor carefully and swiftly, and put it away, and ran to the rear, and took his hat from the wall. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said to the other barbers. “I can’t let—“ He went out, running. The two other barbers followed him to the door and caught it on the re-bound, leaning out and looking up the street after him. The air was flat and dead. It had a metallic taste at the base of the tongue.
“What can he do?” the first said. The second one was saying “Jees Christ, Jees Christ” under his breath. “I’d just as like be Will Mayes as Hawk, if he gets McLendon riled.”
“Jees Christ, Jees Christ,” the second whispered.
“You reckon he really done it to her?” the first said.