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Tom Chaney: Kudzu and Thistles

Of Writers And Their Books: Kudzu and Thistles. Tom says that Faulkner's stream of consciousness approach in The Mansion matches nicely the convolutions of life in Yoknapatawpha. This column first appeared 28 June 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: A Lincoln Friendship Transformed

By Tom Chaney

Kudzu and Thistles

William Faulkner warned us of a plague. The miasma had hit Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County in his trilogy consisting of The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion.

I have just finished re-reading the final book, The Mansion. While it may be one of the funniest southern novels written, it also describes the plague -- worse than Spanish moss, kudzu, or Magnolia Maidens. The plague is named Snopes.

When the last Native American has sold the last of the land that was not his to own or sell. When the last Original Settler has sold the last slave and watched his line dwindle to the last idiot boy with dirty drawers perched in a tree a'spying on his sister. When the last descendant of that last slave has gone north to freedom to teach or to make Fords in Detroit; then come the Snopes.

One could say that the trilogy is specifically about the rise of the Snopes in Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha. Snopes were a lifelong project for Faulkner.

We first meet Ab Snopes, the tenant noted for burning the barns of his landlords in the least dispute. It is his son Flem who is the main character in the trilogy. He appears in Varner's store in Frenchman's Bend in The Hamlet -- insinuating himself into Will Varner's employ by the unspoken threat of his father's arson and into marriage with Eula Varner -- whom Faulkner describes as having passed puberty in the womb -- by proximity.

The eligible young men of Frenchman's Bend have swarmed about Eula. She selects a young teacher who is waylaid and beaten by the swarm. Eula fights them off, takes the teacher to the house, tends his broken arm, and, half-holding him in place, rewards him with her virginity. He flees the next day.

Flem is left to gather the harvest. He and Eula marry and take an extended honeymoon in Texas, long enough for Laura to be born with only a minimal suspicion about parentage.

Flem moves from clerking in Frenchman's Bend to managing the electric company in Jefferson and finally to the bank where we find him in The Mansion. The mark of his progress lies in what he chews. In Varner's store in The Hamlet he chewed tobacco. In The Town he learned about the economy of gum -- chewing one stick a day for a penny. By the time he rises to banker, he is chewing -- 'just a plug of pure Frenchman's Bend air.'

Flem's nemesis is cousin Mink Snopes. Mink is sent to Parchman Prison to serve a 20-year sentence for killing a man as a result of a complicated dispute over a cow. Expecting Flem to come to his aid, Mink finally realizes that he won't -- Mink just asks for time enough to go home, shoot Flem, and come back to prison.

Mink is that ticking time bomb set to go off in the mansion where Flem sits of an evening -- feet propped up on a raw board nailed to a fancy mantle -- just chewing.

These events are chronicled by lawyer Gavin Stephens and sewing machine and radio salesman V. K. Ratliff. Not just a Greek chorus observing, they nudge events along from time to time.

Faulkner is an excellent summer read. His stream of consciousness approach matches nicely the convolutions of life in Yoknapatawpha.

Oh! I've got to mention Clarence Snopes, the venal politician done in by a dog thicket. Clarence has risen from magistrate in Beat Two in Frenchman's Bend to congressman. At the end of World War II it is time for him to go. He doesn't agree to be replaced by a genuine war hero with one leg and progressive ideas.

The war hero comes to speak at the annual Varner's Mill picnic with his two young nephews in tow. Will Varner or Gavin Stephens or perhaps just fate explain to the two boys about a dog thicket where every dog in Beat Two stops every day to see what other dog has been there, whether there are new arrivals or to leave his own calling card.

Before Clarence speaks he is working the crowd not noticing that the boys have cut branches from the dog thicket and rubbed their dewy leaves on his britches leg. Not noticing, that is until his trousers are soaking wet from canine calling cards and the dogs are lined up following him like knots on a kite string.

Clarence never gets to the speakers stand and withdraws from the race in damp ignominy.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-06-29 05:28:48
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