"...a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it..." -- Randall Jarrell
You don't touch the Torah.
That's why I rarely write about William Faulkner.
If there is a grand secular American scripture, it must surely contain Faulkner's works of the 1930s, Melville's Moby Dick and The Confidence Man and his shorter fictions, the essays of Emerson, Thoreau's Walden and "Walking" and "Civil Disobedience," the poems of Whitman and Dickinson, the best novels of Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison, Miss Lonelyhearts and Gravity's Rainbow. That would be enough to found a real religion upon--more than enough--if we needed a religion.
In that nearly unbelievable run of great books Faulkner wrote between the late 1920s and the early 1940s--a period that reached its artistic peak at Absalom, Absalom!, my candidate for the greatest American novel of the 20th century--Light in August is not among the (here comes the annoying pun) most august lights. The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying shine more brightly. They are crisper, tighter books. Absalom is better written. In Light in August Faulkner seems to have given himself permission to stretch out and write at Dickensian length, and while he achieves much that is great and beautiful and intelligent and terrible and sublime in these pages--enough to make any criticisms seem almost nitpicky--the book suffers from this authorial freedom in three important ways. First, it's simply too damn long. The second half of the novel could have been shortened by at least 100 pages without losing anything essential. There are entire scenes that could and should have been reduced to a few sentences of exposition. (This is heresy, I know, but sometimes we must risk the stake.) Second, in a surprisingly clumsy piece of novelistic construction, Faulkner brings his novel to its bloody climax more than 40 pages before the end. The final two (two!) chapters are less catharsis and loose-end tying than an authorial inability to shut up. It's as though Faulkner put himself in a writing trance and couldn't break out until he brought us full circle to Lena Grove on the road again. I admire the symmetry, but I yawned at its execution. Third, and most importantly, Faulkner gives us too little Joanna Burden, one of his most interesting, complex and mysterious characters, and far too much Rev. Hightower, a relatively uninteresting Andersonian grotesque. (Many of Light in August's characters are, in fact, grotesques that might have flowed from the mind of Faulkner's early mentor Sherwood Anderson (Hightower, Mr. and Mrs. Hines; Byron Bunch, Lucas Burch, Percy Grimm); Faulkner might almost have titled this book Winesburg, Mississippi.)
These faults would probably have sunk a lesser novel, but this is not a lesser novel. This is Thirties Faulkner, our greatest writer in his greatest decade. Light in August, with all its faults, is still better than many other writers' best works. It's an essential part of the modern canon, a must-read. Indeed, it's good enough to be read more than once.