Apropos of nothing and at the behest of no one, I'm live-blogging a synopsis of William Faulkner's 1932 Southern Gothic classic "Light in August," chapter by chapter. Check back every few years for updates.
Lena was walking to Mississippi, pregnant, all the way from Alabama, with 35 cents to her name. Her mother died when she was young, then her father, so she went to live with her brother, senior by 20 years, and his wife, who was always pregnant, or recovering from pregnancy, it seemed. They lived in a logging town. Lena stayed in a lean-to out back. Within a few years, she got pregnant by some local "Sawdust Casanova" in the words of her brother, who fled town shortly after the news of his pending fatherhood. So she left her home to go find him. He told her his name was 'Lucas Burch,' so she went looking for a man by that name, and was convinced that Lucas would immediately take her in when he saw her next.
She was picked up by a farmer with a cart, who took her back to his homestead, where she could be tended to by his wife, Martha. Martha saw the situation for what it was right away, knowing the naive girl would never see this 'Lucas' fellow again. "I reckon that even a fool gal don't have to come as far as Mississippi to find out that whatever place she run from ain't going to be a whole lot different or worse than the place she at," the farmer even thought to himself. Nonetheless, Martha opened her piggyback and gave Lena some coins as she continued on her journey.
The next day, the farmer took the traveler to town to catch a wagon into Jefferson. She bought some sardines and ate them as she rode, marveling that it would take her only 30 days to get to Jefferson, Alabama. all the way from Mississippi.
"My, my. A body does get around," she said to herself.
A stranger shows up in the sawmill in Jefferson, looking for work. He wore dirtied city clothes and an “arrogant hat,” that irked the workers there. Nonetheless the plant foreman gave the man a job, and he went right to work, in his fancy duds, shoveling the sawdust pile. He didn't fraternize with the others at all. Joe Christmas, his name was. “What kind of name was “Christmas?” the other workers wondered. He must be a foreigner of some sort.
One of the workers, Byron Bunch, thought a lot about the name. “That was the first time Byron remembered that he had ever thought how a man’s name, which is supposed to be just the sound for who he was, can be somehow an augur of what he will do, if other men can only read the meaning in time.”
Christmas, as it turned out, had lived in town for a few years now, and, in fact, sold moonshine to many of the local men, late at night down a path in the woods. They knew he had a still back at the old lady's house but they did not know he lived in the shed out back of that house. In the town, the old lady was known as a progressive, one who treated black folks just the same as white ones, which was looked upon as suspect by many of the other white townfolk.
A few months after Christmas arrived another man appeared at the sawmill for work. Called himself "Brown," like that was the only name he could come up with when it came time to assume a fake identity. This is one of a number of reasons the men around the yard considered him lazy, and dimwitted.
Each week, Brown would lose his paycheck at craps. This puzzled some of the mill workers, but not others: "What makes you think that he could be good at any kind of devilment when he ain't any good at anything as easy as shoveling sawdust?"
Well, soon enough Christmas and Brown became friends, down in the sawdust patch. And one day Christmas quit, and was seen driving around town in a new auto. The two became tight. So the other workers reckoned Brown would quit as well, and sure enough he did.
And guess who shows up one day at the saw mill? Lena, looking for her man, "Burch." The only one there, who works every saturday afternoon by himself, there, was Bunch. At first, she thought Bunch was who she was looking for, because of the similarity in names, but saw instantly he wasn’t the guy. Still, she watched him "with that expression not so much concerned for the future as suspicious of the now." And they started talking, and the conversation somehow came around to Christmas and Brown. And what did Brown look like, she asked, and Bunch knew he had given Brown away in that moment.
At the edge of Jefferson in a bungalow so hidden away that the street lamp barely touches it lives the disgraced minister. Each evening you can see him there, looking out over the street. Out on the front yard there is a sign that he made himself, the words spelled out with broken pieces of glass, offering art lessons, hand-painted Christmas and anniversary cards and photo development. It also included his name, "Rev. Gail Hightower, D.D." The "D.D." stood for "Done Damned."
Byron Bunch befriended the man, and got to know his story.
Hightower arrived in town some 25 years earlier, with a young wife, as a fresh enthusiastic minister who gushed about requesting to serve the town of Jefferson specifically. Things soon started to chill, however, with the parish soon starting to notice that Hightower's sermons focused a lot of civil war battles, and less about the pressing matters of the community. They were all filled with glory and evil and the calvary and his grandfather, who was killed in combat. On the pulpit, he'd confound this history with absolution and other Biblical matters, which the elders of the church saw as borderline heretical.
Hightower "used religion as though it were a dream. Not a nightmare, but something which went faster than the words in The Book; a sort of cyclone that did not even need to touch the actual earth. And the old men and women did not like that either."
Another issue: Hightower's wife stopped appearing at church each Sunday. When she did, she would wear a "frozen look on her face." And when the town's ladies would visit the minister at their home, the wife was nowhere to be found. Neighbors had claimed that they heard crying in the house at night. Turned out, she was taking the train into Memphis on some weekends, and one Jefferson woman saw her there enter a hotel with a man.
One Sunday when she was in attendance, she stood up from the back of rear pew where she sat and started screaming and shaking her hands at the pulpit, at her husband. "They did not know whether she was shaking her hands at him or at God." After that day, the church took up a collection to send her to a sanatorium. After she got back, she returned to her role as the minister's wife, for awhile anyway. "She was now like had the ladies wanted her to be all the time, the way the minister's wife should be." But that renewal phase soon came to an end: She stopped showing up at church, and her trips to Memphis start to extend in the week.
The minister seemed happy to forget he was ever married. But one Saturday night, on a Memphis trip, she threw herself out of a hotel window. The police had ruled it suicide, even though there was a man in the room with her. The pair had signed in as husband and wife, under false names.
The Jefferson townfolk had found out about it from the Memphis newspaper, and also from the gaggle of reporters who showed up at the church the next morning, where Hightower had decided to press on with his weekly sermon, still with the bombastic overtones of glory and evil. The parishioners walked out in disgust, and few showed up the following Sunday, when Hightower had elected to continue preaching. By then, he was a mere curiosity, with only reporters from the newspapers and gawkers from the neighboring towns who filled the pews.
So the church had once again taken up a collection for Hightower and asked him to step down. He took the money and quit the church, but did not leave the town, like the townfolk had expected him to. Instead, he bought the bungalow. When a town delegation had come to his door, asking for the money back, he returned the whole sum on the spot, and rumors started circulating that he paid for the house with the insurance money from his wife's death, that, he had might have even had her murdered for the money.
His reputation among the townfolk had continued to haunt him, even though he stayed out of the way as much as possible. He hired a black lady to cook his meals, but rumors had persisted of him having an affair with her, and so the townfolk spooked the lady out of working for him. So he hired a black man to cook, and an unknown gang beat him into quiting. Hightower resigned to do his own cooking himself.
The town's torment did not end there. Someone had thrown a brick through his window with a note tied to it, demanding that he leave. It was signed by the KKK. He refused. And he refused to leave when a group of men dragged him out into the woods and tied him to a tree and beat him. He refused to reveal their names to the police, however. When he delivered a baby of a neighbor who was stillborn, the rumors swirled around town that the baby was his and so he killed it purposefully. By then it was hard to believe that the townfolk actually believed this, Bunch thought, that "The town had had the habit of saying things about the disgraced minister which they did not believe themselves for too long a time to break themselves of it."
"When anything gets to be a habit, it also manages to get a right good distance away from truth and fact."
Over the years, the town had forgotten Hightower's sins. The whole thing "blew away like an evil wind." Still, Bunch couldn't suss out why Hightower would not just move out of town. After awhile he concluded that "A fella is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he's already got. He'll cling to trouble he is used to before he'll risk a change."
"A man will talk about how he'd like to escape from living folks. But it's the dead folks that do him the damage. It's the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and don't try to hold him, that he can't escape from."
Bunch got back to his story with Hightower, about meeting Lena. He was fairly sure that she was looking for Brown. He recalled how he took the lady in town, and on the way, they kept hearing about how the old lady's house was burning down, the one Christmas, and, unknown to Lena, Brown lived at out back.
When they got to the Hotel, Bunch presented the Lena to the hotel keeper, Ms. Beard. Ms. Beard did not trust Bunch.
"They say that it is the practiced liar who can deceive. But so often the practiced and chronic liar deceives only himself; it is the man who all his life has been self-convicted of veracity whose lies find quickest credence."
She could take a cot in his room, Beard advised, and she could eat dinner later than the other (male) patrons, just so she doesn't have to hear all the talk around the table, about the house burning down, as Bunch pointed out. The hotel keeper, however, had already decided Lena would eat later, given her pregnancy.
“I reckon a woman in her shape (and having to find a husband named Burch at the same time she thought with dry irony) ain't got no business listening to any more of man’s devilment," Ms Beard thought.
It was unnecessary for Bunch to justify her eating later. "That which he was trying to shield was its own protection."
At dinner, Lena ate tired, barely able to keep her eyes shut. Just as she was about to pass out, it seemed, when Bunch told her about Hightower. Is he enough of a minister to still marry people? she asked.
Down at the police station, Brown was explaining what he knew. He wanted to collect that $1,000 award, even if it did bring him under more scrutiny form the police. "It beats all how some folks think that making or getting money is a kinda game where there are not any rules at all."
By this time, almost everyone knew that Christmas and Brown were selling hootch, possibly from a liquor truck they had held up. Everyone knew they lived at the old lady's house, and were probably up to more no good. How those two found each other was a but of a mystery. "Maybe it was because like not only finds like, it can't even escape from being found by its like."
It was a passing couple who first saw that the house was on fire. At the behest of the wife, the man went into the building, and found a dark-skinned man stumbling around on the first floor, imploring the man not to go upstairs because there's nothing up there. Curiosity piqued, he made his way upstairs nonetheless, and found an old lady dead, her head nearly decapitated.
At the police station, Brown said he knew Christmas was planning to kill the old lady, but he didn't want to say anything. When he first starting sleeping in the shack, he saw that Christmas would take off late at night, go up to the woman's house, slip in side for an hour or so, then slip back. One time, Christmas found Brown awake and was none too pleased:
Christmas said in that still way of his, 'You don't get enough sleep. Maybe you oughta sleep more."
And Brown said, "How much more?"
And Christmas said, "Maybe from now on."
In the police station, Brown felt the walls close in, and so he played his ace in the hole: Why are you accusing me, a white man, of a murder while let the black man run free, he told the police. Up until that time, people in the town thought that Christmas was a foreigner, not a black man. This charge carried much weight.
"You better be careful of what you are saying, if he is a white man. I don't care if he is a murderer or not," the police officer said.
Brown's forthcoming of all the details had surprised the officers. "I reckon he figured that what Christmas committed was not so much a sin as a mistake," Bunch concluded.
We jump back a day, to the night before Christmas murdered the old lady, Joanna Burden. Christmas sits brooding in the shed where he and Brown live. Brown drunkenly stumbles through the door and starts agitating Christmas, claiming he knows Christmas is a black man.
Brown falls drunkenly asleep, though Christmas remains agitated and unable to sleep. Why did the old lady pray over him? She oughtn't have done that, nor should she have lied about her age, and "what happens to women at a certain age," perhaps referring to menopause. He had been visting her late at night.
"The doors were never locked, and it used to be that at whatever hour between dark and dawn that the desire took him, he would enter the house and go to her bedroom and take his sure way through the darkness to her bed. Sometimes she would be awake and waiting and she would speak his name. At others he would waken her with his hard brutal hand and sometimes take her as hard and as brutally before she was good awake," Faulkner wrote.He strips down to his underwear and goes walking naked in a field by a road. A car drives by and a white lady curses at him. He goes off to sleep in a barn with horses.
He awakes later, goes back to the shed to retrieve his shaving gear, seeing Brown sober.
'Sober now,' Christmas thought. 'Sober and don't know it. Poor bastard.’ He looked at Brown.'Poor bastard. He'll be mad when he wakes up and finds out that he is sober again. Take him maybe a whole hour to get back drunk again.'
Christmas then dresses and walks to a grocery store to buy some meat and crackers to eat, which he does while reading a magazine. He then walks into town, takes his dinner and strolls, still agitated over the old lady, through both black and white parts of town.
"Nothing can look as lonely as a big man going along an empty street," Faulkner writes.
"Memory believes before knowing remembers."
Now we jump further back into time, to when Christmas was five years old, and we learn that this is not the first time that he has been mistaken for a white person, and was hurt by a woman.
To be continued...