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The Hamlet

January 19, 2012

Ever since I can remember, I’ve trusted my dad’s taste and opinions on literature. He read and recommended The Lord of the Rings to me, way back in the 1970s, before Peter Jackson helped the Tolkien resurgence. He recommended Cormac McCarthy, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, E. B. White, and Ray Bradbury to me. He taught me contemporary American literature—literally, since I took his class of that name in college. In fact, he was my adviser in college, too, since I was an English major at the school where he taught. So, yeah, he’s been pretty influential in the books I read. (Not all of his choices stick, though: He loves HemThe Hamlet by William Faulkneringway, and I, frankly, have no desire to read any more Hemingway in my life.)

Recently, when we were talking books and I mentioned a couple that I enjoyed for their humor, Dad said, “If you want to read a funny book, read Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy.” Now, I happen to think that my dad is the world’s most unrecognized Faulkner expert. We all knew it, growing up, because so many of our conversations about literature or books (including with our mom, who also taught at the same college and is a Graham Greene expert) ended with Dad recommending Faulkner, either one of his books or a story or an essay or something. He’s the biggest Faulkner fan I know, and I know a few. So I decided I’d try the Snopes trilogy, which starts with The Hamlet.

He’s right: it is a funny book. But there’s so much more going on in it, that I confess I stopped thinking about it as a funny book and instead wondered why the ding-dang I don’t read Faulkner more.

The first part (there are three) starts with Ab Snopes moving to Frenchman’s Bend with his family. His son, Flem, is a wily son of a gun who finds all kinds of ways to get the best of the locals, especially economically. In many scenes and stories, usually told by a local character from the porch of the store, a central meeting place, Flem outsmarts them all by keeping information to himself, leveraging just the right moment to sell or buy, and refusing to let sentiment or family stand in his way to upward mobility. He soon runs the store and most of the businesses in town, either himself or by installing cousins or uncles in them; he also becomes the right-hand man for the town’s top dog and marries said top dog’s daughter.

We learn this from Ratliff, a trademan and horse-dealer himself (well, goat-dealer), who spends the length of the book trying to outsmart Flem, or at least prove that Flem can’t outsmart him. Ratliff knows when to keep information to himself, when to share it, when to deal and when not. Yet he talks to the locals, and that’s how we hear the stories. It’s also the source of much of the hilarity in the first part.

Although the hilarity of the second part comes from the adventures in bovine love by Ike, a developmentally disabled Snopes, Faulkner’s famously dense writing is the star of the book’s midsection. And the final blow for Frenchman’s Bend’s townsfolk comes in the final section, when they get saddled (no pun intended) with wild horses they knew they didn’t want (more hilarity).

But the pastiche of stories contains much more than humor. It’s not hard to see Flem as the vanguard of change for the South, when family traditions and agricultural traditions fell apart and made way for the capitalism of the 20th century. Many of the characters’ stories (Mink Snopes, Labove, Houston, the Amstids) are tragic ones, underlining what the New South (through Flem Snopes) means to their values and lives, which cling to the Old South.

Then there’s the writing. Yes, the guy writes long sentences and uses tough, unusual words. Thank god there’s still something out there to challenge us! What I particularly loved were his metaphors, similes, metonymies, synecdoches. Here’s a description of Flem Snopes:

[He was] a thick squat soft man of no establishable age between twenty and thirty, with a broad still face containing a tight seam of mouth stained slightly at the corners with tobacco, and eyes the color of stagnant water, and projecting from among the other features in startling and sudden paradox, a tiny predatory nose like the beak of a small hawk. It was as though the original nose had been left off by the original designer or craftsman and the unfinished job taken over by someone of a radically different school or perhaps by some viciously maniacal humorist or perhaps by one who had had only time to clap into the center of the face a frantic and desperate warning.

You can see why I might have stopped thinking about the humor and more about Faulkner’s writing and genius.

I have to admit that I got confused a few times, but I’m going to attribute that to distraction (reading on a plane and in the airport, while others are talking, when exhausted, etc.). In fact, what I really want to do is turn back to page one and reread the whole book, since I often feel that I get more out of a novel when I reread it. Sometimes the thrill of a plot or the interest in a character distracts me from the full force of an author’s writing or the implications of descriptions.

Whether I reread it immediately or move on to The Town, the second book in the Snopes trilogy, I know I’ll be reading more Faulkner. He’s just that good.

Thanks, Dad.


From → Loves

  1. Kerry permalink

    Clearly, I now adore your father! What great taste he had–I love all the authors you mentioned. Chris just told me that you started a literary blog (yippee!) and then gave me a quick tutorial on how to find it (I am a functioning illiterate when it comes to technology) so I am so happy to follow your entries from now on.
    Love, your fellow bibliophile…

  2. Kerry,

    I’m so delighted to have you along! I look forward to all your awesome comments!

    P.S. Note that just below the comments box there’s a little box that you can check to be notified of new posts via email, or you can subscribe via RSS.

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