More than a week into the New Year, I finally finished my first book. Yesterday I completed William Faulkner’s Light in August. I have only read two other Faulkner novels, The Sound and the Fury in high school and As I Lay Dying in 2010. I enjoyed both of those works and looked forward to this book with high hopes. Faulkner did not disappoint.
Light in August weaves together the stories of three main characters. The first is Lena Grove, a young woman from Alabama who went to bed with Lucas Burch on the promise that he would marry her. She gets pregnant and Burch skips town, promising to send for Lena when he has a good job and has set up a home. After months without word, Lena sets out on foot. She eventually reaches Jefferson, Mississippi, where Bruch is part of a small whiskey bootlegging operation (under the name of Joe Brown).
The second major character is Joe Christmas, who started the bootlegging operation. Christmas was an orphan who appears white but has been told from a very young age that he is part black. He was adopted by a strict Christian farmer who tried to force Christmas to adopt his puritanical ways. Christmas rebelled and ran away. After decades on the road, he eventually comes to Jefferson and begins an affair with a woman long since shunned by the town for her sympathy to the black race.
The final major character is Gail Hightower, a disgraced minister in Jefferson. He is obsessed by the story of his grandfather, who died in a Confederate cavalry raid on the Union stores in Jefferson. This obsession caused him to seek the appointment to Jefferson following seminary. His singular focus on the events of the past drives his wife away, and she is eventually killed in scandalous circumstances. The resulting disgrace causes Hightower to lose his position, but he stays in Jefferson as something of a hermit.
The lives of these three characters are brought together by the murder of Christmas’ mistress. Lucas Burch/Joe Brown tells the police that Christmas is guilty and a manhunt ensues. Hightower’s only remaining friend, Byron Bunch, falls in love with Lena and tries to shield her from Burch/Brown. Christmas is captured and his long-lost grandparents ask Hightower to lie and establish an alibi for the murder. In the end, Christmas is killed trying to escape, Burch/Brown flees from Lena and her newborn baby, and Hightower is left to reflect on his life and prepare for his death.
This was a phenomenal book. I went through a bit of a funk halfway through and didn’t seem to make much progress, but I don’t blame the book. Once I applied myself, I got back into a groove and couldn’t put it down. Faulkner goes beyond establishing a simple setting. He creates an atmosphere where you can feel the history of the characters guiding their actions and determining their fates. The themes of loneliness, racism, religion, and love are all profoundly explored in the course of the narrative. It is a wonderful example of a master artist at the top of his craft.
The Current Count:
1 Read, 99 To Go