‘Hand Upon The Waters’ by William Faulkner

Faulkner, William 1939b

Hand Upon The Waters by William Faulkner, 1939

The magic trick:

Turning what couldve been a simple who-dun-it into a deep, affecting story

For the second day in a row we have Faulkner elevating a genre riff into something approaching high art. Yesterday, it was the deceptively complex comedy of “A Bear Hunt.” Today, he does his best Agatha Christie in “Hand Upon The Waters,” a murder mystery that also manages to encompass a memorable slice of southern life.

He does so with three angles: One, he makes the Lonnie Grinnup character the picture of innocence, immediately eliciting feeling from the reader. Two, the investigator, Stevens, too is a sympathetic character; heroic even. And three, the conflict between the Brothers Ballenbaugh is intense and interesting.

With such strong characters across the board, the mystery can’t help take on deeper shades and meanings. And that’s quite a trick on Faulkner’s part.

The selection:

At first Stevens did not know what Ballenbaugh was about. He watched in mounting surprise as Ballenbaught turned to face his brother, his hand extended, speaking in a voice which was actually harsh now: “This is the end of the row. I was afraid from that night when you came home and told me. I should have raised you better, but I didn’t. Here. Stand up and finish it.”

“Look out, Tyler!” Stevens said. “Don’t do that!”

“Keep out of this, Gavin. If it’s meat for meat you want, you will get it.”

‘A Bear Hunt’ by William Faulkner

Faulkner, William 1934

A Bear Hunt by William Faulkner, 1934

The magic trick:

Hiding a complex story about race relations in the guise of lightweight comedy

“A Bear Hunt” could be dismissed as minor Faulkner; a shaggy-dog story of sorts with silly characters doing silly things to each other. But I’m not buying it. I’d hate to be the over-analyzing critic trying to make myself feel smart by inventing hidden meanings in what could be enjoyed as a simple, fun story, but excuse me while I do just that.

Yes, this story is playful and funny, but that doesn’t mean Faulkner is fooling around. We have a fairly complex set of race relations here, and the way Faulkner obfuscates the narration between frame story and inner story only serves to highlight the confusion.

So let’s see: We have a white man recounting the time he was beaten up by another white man after sending that white man to visit some Indians in hopes of curing his hiccups and those Indians having been tipped off by a neighboring black man decided to prey on the white man’s prejudicial fears of them by tying him up loosely and threatening to burn him as a favor to the black man who had harbored resentment against this particular white man for nearly 20 years since that white man and two other white men had attacked him and a group of other black men and singed off their fancy shirt collars.

Yep. That’s what happens in this story. The humor is present, but it’s entirely dependent on the characters acting ridiculously in accordance with their dubious racial views. What a weird, wonderful, bizarre story. And that’s quite a trick on Faulkner’s part.

The selection:

Even to some of us – children though we were, yet we were descended of literate, town-bred people – it possessed inferences of secret and violent blood, of savage and sudden destruction, as though the yells and hatchets which we associated with Indians through the hidden and secret dime novels which we passed among ourselves were but trivial and momentary manifestations of what dark power still dwelled or lurked there, sinister, a little sardonic, like a dark and nameless beast lightly and lazily slumbering with bloody jaws – this, perhaps, due to the fact that a remnant of a once powerful clan of the Chickasaw tribe still lived beside it under Government protection. They now had American names and they lived as the sparse white people who surrounded them in turn lived.

Yet we never saw them, since they never came to town, having their own settlement and store. When we grew older we realized that they were no wilder or more illiterate than the white people, and that probably their greatest deviation from the norm – and this, in our country, no especial deviation – was the fact that they were a little better than suspect to manufacture moonshine whisky back in the swamps.

‘That Evening Sun’ by William Faulkner

Faulkner, William 1931

That Evening Sun by William Faulkner, 1931

The magic trick:

The use of Jason in the story

Among the many, many, many fascinating magic tricks in this story, I’m most intrigued by Faulkner’s presentation of Jason, the narrator’s youngest brother. He is possibly the most annoying child in all of literature. He bickers with his siblings; he is unspeakably rude to Nancy, the black woman who helps tend his family’s house; and he has a knack for talking when he should not.

His yapping could be written off as background noise in the story, if not plain old attempts at comic relief. But come on, this is William Faulkner, folks. Jason’s behavior is not thrown into the story for fun and games.

Consider the way he talks to Nancy. He is too young to even know what he’s saying. Clearly then he’s only parroting things he’s heard adults say. His racist talk represents the feelings of the adults in the community. He even says as much early in the story when he accuses Nancy of being drunk: “Father says you’re drunk. Are you drunk, Nancy?”

He also fixates on the notion of bravery. He wants badly to prove to his siblings that he isn’t afraid of anything, especially walking outside after dark. Well, this is a critical foil to Nancy, whose fear is at the heart of the story. The fact that Jason repeatedly defends his bravery by claiming “I ain’t a (n-word),” further highlights this direct connection to Nancy’s fear.

It is truly remarkable that Faulkner could so thoroughly understand both sides of the racial divide in Mississippi like he did – in the 1930s no less. Even more amazing: he vilifies a would-be innocent, little kid to make his point. Haunting stuff. And that’s quite a trick on Faulkner’s part.

The selection:

“I ain’t crying,” Nancy said. Her eyes were closed. “I ain’t crying. Who is it?”

“I don’t know,” Caddy said. She went to the door and looked out. “We’ve got to go now,” she said. “Her comes father.”

“I’m going to tell,” Jason said. “Yawl made me come.”

The water still ran down Nancy’s face. She turned in her chair. “Listen. Tell him. Tell him we going to have fun. Tell him I take good care of yawl until the morning. Tell him to let me come home with yawl and sleep on the floor. Tell him I won’t need no pallet. We’ll have fun. You member last time how we had so much fun?”

“I didn’t have fun,” Jason said. “You hurt me. You put smoke in my eyes. I’m going to tell.”


‘The Tall Men’ by William Faulkner

Faulkner, William 1941

The Tall Men by William Faulkner, 1941

The magic trick:

The long monologue the old deputy marshal breaks into midway through the story

It is but a mere passing comment early in the story, but the deputy’s admonishment of the young inspector – “… I been trying to tell you something for you not to forget. But I reckon it will take these McCallums to impress that on you…” – sets up the central message of the piece.

He makes good on his promise later in the story, telling a lengthy history of the McCallum family during a long monologue. It recalls a device Chekhov uses in each of his Little Trilogy stories (though perhaps I’m only making that connection because I have recently read a lot of Chekhov) in which he allows one character to make a lengthy statement that provides the heart of the overall story. The monologue, also like Chekhov in The Little Trilogy, allows the author to keep his own views hidden. The marshal’s speech is strong in its anti-New Deal sentiments, defending the liberty of the rural south. And that’s great. This can simply be a story about this man’s point of view. It doesn’t necessarily represent Faulkner’s opinion on the subject at all. The author can be direct and even political without betraying any personal allegiances. And that’s quite a trick on Faulkner’s part.

The selection:

The old marshal turned, his shaggy eyebrows beetling again, speaking down to the investigator as if he were a child, “Ain’t you found out yet that me or you neither ain’t going nowhere for a while?”

“What?” the investigator cried. He looked about at the grave faces once more contemplating him with that remote and speculative regard. “Am I being threatened?” he cried.

“Ain’t anybody paying any attention to you at all,” the marshal said. “Now you just be quiet for a while, and you will be all right, and after a while we can go back to town.”


‘Barn Burning’ by William Faulkner

Faulkner, William 1939

Barn Burning by William Faulkner, 1939

The magic trick:

The ambiguity as to which side of the argument the boy is on during the storys first three paragraphs

Faulkner lays it all out for us in the first paragraph of this remarkable story. I’m hungry, I’m distracted, I’m hungry, I’m scared, I’m distracted, I’m hungry, I’m confused, I’m scared, OH GOD WHAT THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO DO? Boom. Welcome to adulthood, young Sarty Scopes. It’s right there in three sentences.

The real trick to these introductory passages is the way in which Faulkner withholds the boy’s loyalty in the argument. We meet the boy. We learn that he is attending a trial in which his father is being charged. We even learn the details of the argument that preceded the barn-burning charge. And yet Faulkner, by employing names we don’t recognize, using generic pronouns, and failing to attribute any of the quotations, keeps us in the dark. We don’t know if the boy’s father had his barn burned or was the one doing the barn burning. It’s only when we gain insight into the boy’s thoughts – “He aims for me to lie..” – that we can rightly suspect that the father is the accused and not the accuser.

It’s a neat trick for dramatic effect, sure, but Faulkner uses it to make a more important point. The confusion as to which side the boy is on turns out to be the central theme of the story. The reader learns on the second page that the father is the accused party in the trial, but it takes the remainder of the story to figure out where the boy’s loyalties lie. And that’s quite a trick on Faulkner’s part.

The selection:

They went back up the road. A week ago – or before last night, that is – he would have asked where they were going, but not now. His father had struck him before last night but never before had he paused afterward to explain why; it was as if the blow and the following calm, outrageous voice still rang, repercussed, divulging nothing to him save the terrible handicap of being young, the light weight of his few years, just heavy enough to prevent his soaring free of the world as it seemed to be ordered but not heavy enough to keep him footed solid in it, to resist it and try to change the course of its events.


‘He’ by Katherine Anne Porter

Porter, Katherine Anne 1927

He by Katherine Anne Porter, 1927

The magic trick:

Letting the full emotional weight of the story only hit when the He characters perspective is considered

Porter capitalizes “He” and “His” every time He is mentioned throughout the story. (Jesus, anyone?) For all that spotlight, His perspective is never considered until the very end. It’s a remarkable subterfuge by Porter.

Mrs. Whipple certainly thinks she is caring about her son the entire time, but, in fact, her concerns are rooted only in what people will think of her family. She wants to love Him, but mainly because she wants to keep her neighbors from ever saying that she didn’t love Him. The neighbors, meanwhile, are just as judgmental as she fears and offer no help to the family.

I won’t ruin it here for those who haven’t read the story, but sufficed to say, Mrs. Whipple faces her guilt in the end, as do the neighbors. She finally considers (is forced to recognize) His point of view for the first time, and the revelations are heartbreaking. I dare say even the hardest of the hard out there, those who equate sentimentality with crimes against the state, will be reaching for the tissue box. And that’s quite a trick on Porter’s part.

The selection:

“It’s the neighbors,” said Mrs. Whipple to her husband. “Oh, I do mortally wish they would keep out of our business. I can’t afford to let Him do anything for fear they’ll come nosing around about it. Look at the bees, now. Adna can’t handle them, they sting him up so; I haven’t got time to do everything, and now I don’t dare let Him. But if He gets a string He don’t really mind.”

“It’s just because He ain’t got sense enough to be scared of anything,” said Mr. Whipple.


‘Blackberry Winter’ by Robert Penn Warren

robert penn warren

Blackberry Winter by Robert Penn Warren, 1947

The magic trick:

Connecting the poetic notion of time to the tangible events and characters of the story

This is such a beautiful story, it’s nearly impossible to select only one magic trick to highlight, but the way in which Warren interweaves the time metaphor throughout the characters and plot seems a good place to start.

Warren establishes the time theme in the third paragraph, breaking from the plot to describe quite eloquently how the experiences of a 9-year-old boy stand in one’s memories more than those from other ages. What you remember, Warren writes, “stands up big and full and fills up Time and is so solid that you can walk around and around it like a tree and look at it.” Warren, having set up his main point, can filter the rest of the story through that lens.

The blackberry winter, the tramp and the flood seem to arrive together, connected somehow. The men at the bridge talk of bracing for the hard times in life. Dellie, her home ravaged by the flood, is sick, perhaps realizing that one of those hard times has struck her family. Big Jebb personifies the tree of time, talking of time coming, time going, calmly waiting for the end of time. Warren wraps it all up in the final sentence, as the narrator looks back on the episode and admits that he has for his entire life remembered the day the tramp arrived at the farm.

I am not often a fan of art that requires the artist to break from the piece in order to directly explain what the work of art is trying to say, as Warren does early in this story. But here, the technique works perfectly and the result is a rich, layered, and poetic consideration of time, memory and fate. And that’s quite a magic trick on Warren’s part.

The selection:

You are aware that time passes, that there is a movement in time, but that is not what Time is. Time is not a movement, a flowing, a wind then, but it is, rather, a kind of climate in which things are, and when a thing happens it begins to live and keeps on living and stands solid in Time like the tree that you can walk around. And if there is a movement, the movement is not Time itself, any more than a breeze is climate, and all the breeze does is to shake a little the leaves on the tree which is alive and solid.