March 09, 2010
JE: D.R. “Duke” Haney’s Banned for Life is a great sprawling coming-of-age, with all the pitch and velocity of a punk rock adolescence. Banned is also, along with Hesh Kestin’s The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, the most “lived in” novel I read last year, and one of the most under-read, in my estimation. Here’s Duke on the books he first fell in love with:
My family has been in Virginia since the seventeenth century, and many in my line were farmers, including my grandparents on both sides. I was especially close to my maternal grandparents, and spent a lot of time on their dairy farm, which my grandfather designated Grand View after the land and the house on it were passed to him by his mother, Della, whose mean streak was legendarily Medusa-like. The mean streak was not unjustified. Della’s husband, Hugh, was a circuit rider—that is, a traveling preacher who spread the Gospel on horseback—whose later, untreatable madness may have been triggered by the sudden death of their young daughter, Sara. Another shock was the murder, by a jealous ex, of my beloved Great-Aunt Nicie’s intended as he left the house one night.
The house, which sits at the crest of a hill that does indeed afford a grand view, already had a painful history. It was built in the 1830s by slaves owned by the prosaically-named Cowherd family (Della and Hugh acquired the property at the turn of the twentieth century), and during the Civil War, there was a skirmish between Yanks and Rebs at the foot of the hill, with part of the house razed by cannonfire. My Great-Great-Uncle Billy, uninvolved in that fight, was an officer in the Confederate Army, and buried in uniform, as per his request on his old-age deathbed. He strongly resembled Robert E. Lee in the only photo I saw of him: white-bearded and stately atop a white steed, his riding coat looking Confederate gray in the sepia-toned photo.
This is all to say that family lore uniquely prepared me for the novels of William Faulkner, with Grand View filling in for many of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County settings. There was, for instance, a gray-wood shack next to the chicken yard, where I pictured Joanna Burden of Light in August living as a pariah. There was a smokehouse, sweetly smelling of sultry ham, in the back yard, where I pictured Ringo and Bayard of The Unvanquished playing war. As for the late-night fight of Absalom, Absalom!, I transposed that to my grandfather’s former horse stable—“former” because he renounced horses after he was forced to put down an injured favorite. Of all of Faulkner’s books, Absalom, Absalom! has for me special resonance, since I read it at Grand View during a summer retreat from New York. Then, too, it solidified my love of paragraph-long sentences and pages-long paragraphs.
But my love for Faulkner began with our introduction, The Sound and The Fury, which he wrote under the influence of Joyce, and so fused stream-of-consciousness modernism with Hawthornian Gothic. It was, I think, the most ambitious novel I’d read to date (I was twenty), and I naturally saw it taking place at Grand View, with Caddy Compson, whose soiled underpants so jolted her three damaged brothers, climbing the mimosa tree that, as a child, I used to climb.
Faulkner spent his final years as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia, and his grandsons owned a bar in my hometown. Once, when I was at the bar with my father, the owners both appeared, one of them a dead ringer for Faulkner in his thirties, and I had an impulse to walk up to him and say, “I am your grandfather’s heir.” I was working on a novel at the time, and later, after I junked it, I wondered at the weird urge to announce myself as Faulkner’s heir—to his grandson, no less. It was youthful hubris, of course, but still, I’d never been so sure of myself, and now it seemed I’d never start another novel, having been so battered by the one abandoned.
I was wrong. I did start, as well as finish, another novel, though the subject matter—punk rock—proves, as if proof were necessary, that I’m not Faulkner’s heir. But it was a grand illusion for the second it lasted.