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by John Sledge

It was a gorgeous fall afternoon. The air was crisp and clean, the sky a brilliant blue and the Chinese Tallow trees ablaze with red and yellow. I was working along my back fence, clearing away the dry tangle of privet, kudzu and thorn that had run riot all summer. With broad strokes of the sling blade I hacked away at the dense mass, sending twigs and broken bits of vine flying. The westering sun shot golden beams through the debris-filled air, and there was no sound but the crash of the blade. My barn jacket felt good in the chill, and my dog sat nearby, waiting for me to finish. At that moment it struck me--I must read some Faulkner.

Certain authors suit certain moods, and this was clearly a Faulkner moment. My choices were limited, however. I have only two Faulkner volumes in my personal library, a collection of short stories and a Library of America edition featuring his four later novels; Go Down, Moses (1942), Intruder in the Dust (1948), Requiem for a Nun (1951) and A Fable (1954). I didn’t want to read a short story, desiring something more substantial, but Requiem for a Nun and A Fable both seemed too long. Having read Go Down, Moses before, I settled into a chair with the volume opened to Intruder in the Dust

When Faulkner asked his publishers for an advance to write this book, he told them that it was to be a "blood and thunder mystery novel" that would deal forthrightly with the issue of race. Its underlying theme was to be, he wrote, the "relationship between Negro and White…the premise being that the white people in the South, before the North or the govt. or anyone else, owe and must pay a responsibility to the Negro." Faulkner wrote the novel in just over a month, and revised it in three.

Reviews were mixed, but widespread, and Intruder in the Dust sold 15,000 copies. It was Faulkner’s first commercial success, for despite critical acclaim for his earlier books, they had been sluggish sellers. MGM bought the movie rights for $50,000, and Faulkner used the money to buy a sailboat and enlarge his beloved Rowan Oak.

Subsequent critical opinion on Intruder in the Dust has been mixed as well, but the general consensus is that it lacks the emotional force and power of Faulkner’s earlier works. The novel is set in Yoknapatawpha County, and centers on a black man, Lucas Beauchamp, who is accused of murdering a white man. The determination of the white population to lynch Beauchamp is thwarted by an unlikely alliance of two teenage boys, one white and one black, and an old spinster and a conscientious small-town lawyer, both white.

Intruder in the Dust features Faulkner’s signature stream-of-consciousness prose, maddening in its twists and turns and changes of focus. Even so, the tale is more straightforward than most of his stories (there are few significant temporal digressions, for instance) and the narrative drive is strong. The book is, in short, a page-turner.

There are also a number of memorable passages, none more famous than the Gettysburg fantasy. As Faulkner wrote, "For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on the July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet…."

If Intruder in the Dust lacks the gravitas of "Absalom, Absalom!" or "Light in August," no matter. Passages like the foregoing make it well worth the read. Those approaching Faulkner for the first time ought to consider this novel. It is lean and fast and sometimes even dazzling. It certainly satisfied me on an autumn evening.