A Thanksgiving Reading

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By The Old Man and Me

Under an opaque sky and the damp cool air you get in the South before the freezes come, the cedars and magnolias of the old Faulkner mansion regarded us with silent suspicion as we unfolded our little wooden table.

It was Thanksgiving and we had the grounds as well as the holiday to ourselves since it was the first time neither of our children could make it home. We spread the cheery tablecloth, popped the wine cork, and let the smell of bakery pumpkin pie, BBQ joint smoked turkey legs, and homemade stuffing made for us by a friend fill the air of Rowan Oak.

Before we ate, we started a new tradition. We each brought a favorite book and read a passage that meant something to us. Since we were on the sacred grounds of Rowen Oak, we read from “Absalom, Absalom” and “As I Lay Dying.” The next year, as we sat in our own Florida backyard, we read from a variety of writers including Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain.

This year we will again be separated by too many miles when the time comes to sit and give thanks on Thursday. But no matter where we are, whether it is at an extended family gathering in Lake Wales, Florida, a restaurant in Albuquerque, or an Army base in Missouri, we will stop and say a few words. And hopefully some beautifully constructed passages from a favorite book will make each of us feel “at home.”

This year one of the books we will be reading from is Mark Richard’s glorious 2011 memoir “House of Prayer No. 2.” Writing beautifully in the second person, Richard’s memoir is equally funny, heartbreaking and poignant. A good story is definitely something to be thankful for.

Here is a favorite passage:

“You tag along when they go down to Roanoke to pick up Truman Capote at the airport, and the first thing he wants is a drink, and the only place your friend with the limousine knows is the Polynesian restaurant by the airport where they serve birdbath-sized drinks with fruit and parasols, and Mr. Capote says, Perfect! You’re supposed to keep an eye on the time because you still have an hour drive to school, but Mr. Capote keeps ordering scorpions, and you’re all getting drunk listening to him talk about a man who injected rattlesnakes with amphetamines and put them in a car that someone got into and the doors locked once he got in and he was bitten to death, isn’t that something? It’s true, it’s true! He keeps saying in a catlike voice; he says he has the newspaper clippings to prove it.

By the time you get to the school auditorium for the reading, people are leaving, and there are some people really angry with you. Mr. Capote requested a pink spotlight, and even though he’s had as much to drink as you, he goes right to the podium and gives a reading of a Christmas story that makes people cry. Afterward, he signs two books for you; one you give to the father of a girl you are in love with who will die. She will be your first true love. When you would drive out to her gentlemen farmer’s house, you’d take bunches of gardenias cut from your neighbors’ bushes, and while you’d wait for her to get ready, you and her father would sit on the back patio if it wasn’t too buggy; his house was near the river where you could still see trenches from the siege of Suffolk, and the two of you would talk books, Faulkner and Camus. For years after she dies, when you would run into each other, you both try not to cry.”

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READING FAULKNER

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“So maybe you will enter the literary profession as so many Southern gentlemen and gentlewomen too are doing now and maybe you will remember this and write about it. You will be married then I expect and perhaps your wife will want a new gown or a new chair for the house and you can write this and submit it to the magazines,” Miss Rosa Coldfield, Absalom, Absalom!

I can’t describe this trip without sounding like a lunatic. Or a poser. Or both possibly.

It’s the hottest week of the summer of 2011 and I’m behind the wheel of our Passat wagon barreling North up Mississippi’s U.S. 45. I’ve got the best Mississippi gas station barbeque beef tips balanced on the center console, some sweet tea in a Styrofoam cup and the husband reading to me from Absalom, Absalom!.

It was a scene that would have made William Faulkner proud: his work read aloud while the reader ate barbeque through Mississippi.

We were on our way to the annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference hosted by the University of Mississippi that summer after reading about it for years in the New York Times book review. To be truthful, I was a little uncertain about attending this conference as amateurs. We didn’t even belong to a book club, for heaven’s sake.

But we did have ambitious enthusiasm for Faulkner and his world so spending a week studying, eating crisp catfish on the lawn of Rowan Oak and meeting interesting academics for drinks at City Grocery bar sounded like the perfect way to spend some hard-earned vacation time.

What we found was an unlikely group of high school teachers, graduate students, professors and other couples from across the nation who happen to love Faulkner. These were not academics studying the difficult works of a long-dead Southerner. No, this conference is designed to bring his famous, albeit somewhat confusing, writing in focus for us today.

Because behind the walls of every local gated community lives the ambitious heir of Thomas Sutpen, the Tea Party descendant of the Snopes or even the unaware and spoiled grandchildren of Anse Bundren.

Faulkner is simply telling you a story much like my brother does when he’s come across an act of Redneck stupidity too great to be left alone. If you’ve ever picked up As I Lay Dying and promptly sat it back down after a few chapters, find James Franco’s excellent 2013 film and all will become—at times hysterically—clear.

Or do what Faulkner himself advised his own wife after she had problems with The Sound and the Fury…”read it again.” Or, even better, read it aloud.