loulamac’s #CBRV review #77: Follow Me Down by Shelby Foote; audiobook read by Tom Parker

mississippi

It’s 1949, and in the shoreline water of a Mississippi island the body of a young woman is discovered. She has been strangled, tied with wire to blocks to weigh her down and has been in the water for a few days. Her blonde hair and the gold anklet she is wearing quickly identify her as Beulah, the eighteen year girl who turned up on the island three weeks before with her fifty year old lover Luther Eustis. A witness leads police to him, and he is arrested and tried for her murder.

All of this is revealed to you in the opening chapter, which is narrated by the court reporter in the town where the trial is to take place. The joy of this book, then, is not in detection or the chase, but in the gradual reveal of Eustis’ motives, and the strange path that seems to inevitably lead him to murder. Faith, passion and birthright all combine to bring Eustis to his young lover and his crime. This is disclosed to us over the course of the book by an array of narrators. These include the aforementioned reporter, Eustis himself, his wife, Beulah, the ‘Dummy’ witness who identifies him, and his trial lawyer. Each of these very different voices has its own perspective, knowledge of and level of intimacy with the quiet, respectable and devout Eustis, and helps build the picture of how he came to do what he did.

Shelby Foote came into my life years ago, when he appeared in Ken Burn’s documentary series about the American Civil War, and I was curious about his works of fiction. I wasn’t disappointed. His writing is evocative and dreamy without the slightest hint of showiness or fuss. He also does not shy away from the darker side of human nature and what can drive a man to do a terrible thing that is so out of character. Tom Parker’s reading of the novel is beautiful. Calm and considered, his tone and accent combine with Foote’s prose to hypnotise. The story will exert a quiet grip on you, and is not easily forgotten.

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Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #62: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

With each chapter written from the viewpoint of one of 15 different characters, and much of the writing done in the form of “stream of consciousness,” Faulkner broke new literary ground with As I Lay Dying, which he reportedly wrote in six weeks, with nary a word changed in the final published work.  It is the story of Addie Bundren, who lays dying as the book opens, forced to hear her eldest son Cash building her coffin below her window. Her husband Anse, a dirt-poor farmer in the Mississippi backwater, promises to take her body for burial to her home town of Jefferson, across the river and some 40 miles distant by wagon, and her five children ranging from Cash to little Vardamon will accompany her coffin on this odyssey as well.

As black a “comedy” as one can imagine, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. First, Addie is put in her coffin with her head where her feet should go, because the dress she is buried in bells at the feet and needs the extra room. Cash insists the coffin is thus imbalanced, but Anse ignores him. Then Vardamon, convinced his mother can’t breathe in the coffin, drills holes through the top and inadvertently drills into his mother’s face. Heavy rains cause the river to flood and washes away not one but several bridges. Anse insists on crossing the river anyway, having already lost several days and with Addie’s corpse starting to smell. The coffin floats off the wagon, the mule team drowns, and Cash not only loses his beloved carpentry tools, but also re-breaks a recently-broken leg. At risk of their lives, sons Jewel and Darl dive for the wagon and the tools, and rescue the coffin. Anse sells Jewel’s beloved horse for a new mule team, and the family moves on, but Cash must spend the rest of the journey lying atop the coffin, smelling a decomposing corpse and watching the buzzards gather.

And that’s just the beginning. Everywhere the Bundren family goes, people urge them to bury the corpse out of respect, but Anse insists on going to Jefferson, invoking his solemn promise to Addie and before God. That he has another agenda is revealed only at the very end.  The voice of the traumatized little boy is nearly impossible to comprehend, while the family’s only daughter—secretly pregnant—is angry and sullen, secretive and bitter. Jewel, we learn, is the middle son who was born of a liason between Addie and the local minister. Addie, we learn from the one chapter written from her (post-mortem?) viewpoint, hated her husband, her children, and her life, and Jewel was her only comfort. Darl, the second eldest son, is considered “strange,” but is perhaps the most sane among them.

As I struggled to figure out who the characters in this Greek tragedy were, why they were going on this odyssey from hell, and what the various currents were that were driving them, I was constantly discovering ironic little twists of fate that Faulkner enjoyed burying within this grim and depressing tale. A challenging work, to be sure, and perhaps the hardest I’ve ever had to work to read a book. Was it worth it? You tell me.