Wm. Faulkner has a writing style all his own. The hero of Intruder in the Dust (1948) is a 16-year-old white boy who, along with his boy, Aleck Sander (same age as our hero, his friend, and black), and a spry elderly lady, Miss Habersham, set out to disprove the accusation of murder against one, Lucas Beauchamp. The boy’s name is Chick (his mother calls him Charlie) Mallison, but he’s always referred to in the 3rd person throughout the book. Part way through, his mother calls him by name when addressing him, and toward the end, his uncle, Gavin Stevens, refers to him as Chick, and mentions his family name. His uncle is referred to as just that, “his uncle”, and his name is only used a couple of times in the story. It takes a bit of getting used to at first, but you catch on.
This is first of all, a great murder mystery, made more so by shenanigans in the cemetery in the middle of the night, disappearing corpses, and the tension throughout the region caused by the belief that a black man has killed a white man and maybe there’ll be a lynching. But the story is also a psychological study of life in a small southern town, how people act, why they act that way, and how it’s all seen first by a boy when he’s twelve, and then when he’s 16 and just starting to make some connections.
Lucas Beauchamp is the grandson of a white landowner and a black slave. He’s sometimes referred to by Chick’s uncle as a “Sambo”. (The Oxford Dictionary says Sambo is a racial term, an obsolete term for a person with African heritage that is now considered offensive.) The landowner, Edmonds, acknowledged his son, and somewhere along the way a house and land on top of a hill was deeded to him and his descendants in perpetuity, 10 acres in the middle of the plantation. Lucas is variously described as being calm, disinterested, inflexible, not scornful, not even contemptuous, slow moving, and deliberate. When he speaks to boys, he expects them to oblige; when he speaks to white men, he expects them to not listen — and that’s what happens. White men think he acts ‘uppity’. Chick says,
We got to make him be a nigger first. He’s got to admit he’s a nigger. Then maybe we will accept him as he seems to intend to be accepted.
Lucas is caught standing over a dead white man who’s been shot in the back, with a gun on him that has been fired. He’s arrested but doesn’t tell anyone the facts. He tries to hire Chick’s uncle to do something for him, but Uncle Gavin is too busy being the white man telling Lucas what’s going to happen and thinking how he’ll have him plead guilty to manslaughter. So Lucas confides only in Chick, and Chick believes him and has the courage, or the foolhardiness to act upon the information. His unlikely accomplice in his furtive mission is Miss Habersham who knows and trusts Lucas and also believes in him. Chick remembers old Ephraim telling him once,
. . . a middle-year man like your paw and your uncle, they cant listen. They aint got time. They’re too busy with facks. In fact, you might bear this in yo mind; someday you mought need it. If you ever needs to get anything done outside the common run, dont waste yo time on the menfolks; get the womens and children to working at it.
I don’t know if people have the patience to read a novel like this today, when everything is instant gratification and the internet is never fast enough. The stream of consciousness is hard to stick with at times, no matter how interesting — sometimes a whole page will be no more than two or three sentences and it’s all written and spelled in dialect. This is a great story, and a great follow-up to Harper Lee’s books, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman; but it’s not an easy read, not a quick read. What it is, is a worthwhile read. * * * * *