Saturday, November 26, 2016

"Barn Burning" (1939)

Read story by William Faulkner online.

This story sees William Faulkner in good form on the Snopes family. It's told third-person from the point of view of a young Snopes boy, who is ludicrously named Colonel Sartoris, though everyone calls him "Sarty." Sarty is only 10 or 11 years old, but he is regularly amazed and aghast at the behavior of his father, Abner. Abner Snopes is proud, filled with rage, and self-destructive. He perversely refuses to cooperate with anyone on anything, even friends or neighbors, even on things like building fences to enclose his animals. When these friends and neighbors object, and then impose penalties to counter his irresponsibility and offset the cost of their troubles, Abner gets mad and takes revenge, burning down their barns and such. Then the family has to move again. Abner Snopes is a classic Faulkner character—poor, white, ignorant, unyielding, and boiling with rage. Already Sarty can remember moving nearly a dozen times. Abner is described more than once as looking as if he were cut from tin, a familiar Faulkner formulation: " ... he could see his father against the stars but without face or depth—a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat." The story starts with a legal case against Snopes that can't be proved, but he and his family are run out of the area—once more Sarty has to move. At the new place, Abner immediately makes more trouble with his new landlord. The story is half shocking treachery and half pure comedy, as Abner alienates all people he suspects thinks they are better than him. In this case the victim is Major de Spain, also seen previously in Faulkner's work. The Snopes stories, in fact, are some of Faulkner's funniest, though the grim razor edges of violence and seething anger are never far. I'll also point out this story is a reasonably straightforward narrative. You always know what's going on and it has a lot of momentum. The ending, an epic confrontation between Abner and de Spain, is not entirely clear, but it's likely that's clarified elsewhere in the Faulkner canon. And if it's not, it's possible to make the note of ambiguity work too, so all good, right? The important part of the story to me is the unearthly unrelenting powerful physical presence of Abner. His anger can be felt palpably, yet even at his most threatening he is also an unmistakable comic element, a kind of downhome version of Tony Soprano, bumptiously cracking hilarious and maiming and murdering people. Remarkable balancing act and a good story.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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