Review of Sanctuary, by William Faulkner

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/12/05


  Ok, so everyone has for years told me how great a writer William Faulkner was. So, I read As I Lay Dying- mediocre at best, and no real strengths at characterization are revealed. Instead, a bunch of yokel stereotypes. So, I mark that off as just one of those things. Then I read his Collected Stories. Atrocious! Nothing but stereotypes in every tale. The Southern grotesques are not as noxious as in, say, Flannery OíConnor, but the tales are all wooden, dull, and generally- a mess! So, I read Sanctuary, which comes with the preface that it was Faulknerís Ďdeliberately commercialí novel, and the one that Ďbroke himí to readers. So, I think if the high literature of As I Lay Dying, and his acclaimed short stories, is bad then, perhaps, the real gem lies in his Ďcommercialí novel.

  O for three! What this book was was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before that film- except for the chainsaw, and not being set in Texas. This has got to be one of the worst books ever penned, and all the more egregious because, despite its being Ďcommercialí, itís still the province of a high fictionist! The characters are even more stereotyped than in As I Lay Dying, and the plot revolves around the kidnapping of a judgeís daughter and a slew of murders. Now, for those of you wondering which Texas Chainsaw Massacre I was referring to, the 1974 Tobe Hooper original, or the 2003 remake with nymphet Jessica Biel, I can state it does not really matter, but let me choose the latter, since that film was merely a reason to show off the nubile Ms. Bielís fabulous form and healthy wet t shirted bosom.

  The Jessica Biel of this novel is Temple Drake- a blonde bombshell sort who would be right at home as a secretary to Mickey Spillaneís Mike Hammer. And for those of you who have snickered let me say, Iíve read Spillaneís first three novels and they put the troika by Faulkner to shame, for Spillane knows how to use cardboard characters to effect, whereas with Faulkner they are just filler between glimpses of showoffy poetic writing. Itís a back and forth between the glitz of wordplay and the creak and bend of the cardboard. In short, Sanctuary is far worse than your average potboiler because itís pretentious, and Spillane never was, nor did he write merely average potboilers!

  Anyway, Temple is kidnapped, and a lot of people are killed- I believe nine, but it could be more or less. I donít really care to check back into the book to make sure. Why these things happen is of no real import because there is no motivation save irredeemable sadism. Now, Iím not stating that people like this do not exist, but art is supposed to reveal things as to why such people exist, and how their actions resonate outside their sphere. When one of the kidnappers- a moronic sadist named Popeye- rapes Temple with a corn cob (for heís impotent) nothing comes of it. It is gratuitous violence foisted just to be shocking- nothing more. Gratuitous violence can be well done. Spillaneís Hammer is a definite sadist, but the characters he tortures deserve it and more, and the shadings of Hammerís personality let us believe that the violence may not be gratuitous, but the outgrowth of traumas hinted at within the narratives.

  Faulkner, in this or his other two books Iíve read, seems to not understand narrative, nor character, and while he can sometimes paint pretty pictures with words, they are isolate glimmers in bilge of dung. In this book the action takes place, and then murky prose swamps it. Why? Pretension. Faulkner seems to have gloried in his own wordplay for wordplayís sake. But, it does nothing to enliven the tale.

  That tale is about a lawyer named Horace Benbow who gets caught up with Popeye and the sadistic whorehouse workers he knows. Temple and her cipher of a beau, Gowan Stevens, crash their car near the distillery in Faulknerís fictive Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha, and Temple ends up at a Memphis whorehouse run by a kindly old madam- Reba- with a heart of gold (clichť alert), who attempts more than once to get Temple away from the hellhole- all this after being abandoned by her drunken beau. People die in brutal ways. Again, why is of no import, as Faulkner has no reason, and if he did itís long been flushed from my memory. Benbow then ends up defending someone wrongly accused of murder- how and why: FLUSH!

  The bootleggers are the Goodwin family- Lee and Ruby, who keep their stillborn son in a box behind their stove. A man is murdered by Popeye, who then takes Temple to the whorehouse. Lee Goodwin is arrested for the murder and Benbow defends him, and seeks out Popeye and Temple. More blood and gore, and Temple loses her mind, all the while I am wishing that, like Jessica Biel, she only needs to lose her shirt. Please! Letíem hang loose, baby, once and for all!

  The titleís meaning is multifarious, and rather obvious, since itís the one thing none of the cretins within the book get. So what? Mickey Spillane crafted much more interesting scenarios two decades later, and Mike Hammer would have jackbooted Popeye inside of a page of meeting him. In the end, no lessons are learned, Temple perdures, and the last page or so of the book ends very poetically. But, itís simply air spray freshener used on a litter box. The odor underneath still permeates.

  I will have to read The Sound And The Fury, but Iíve given up on having any high expectations for it. Perhaps, thatís the key, and I will be pleasantly surprised, although I doubt it will change my overall view of Faulkner as one of the most grotesquely overrated writers of all time. He constipates me with his plodding narratives, ridiculously stilted conversations, and outrageously thin plot machinations. I need an enema after all that, but sans that- pass the corn cob!


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Summer, 2005 Laura Hird website.]


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