Faulkner on the Subway

I attended a specialized high school in New York City in the 1990s so that meant a two hour journey—one bus and two trains—from Queens to the north Bronx. The trains were so crowded I had to stand, holding a rail and ignoring threats from gangbangers. But that didn’t stop me from reading William Faulkner.

It began while I was working as a Kumon tutor on Saturdays. To complement my travel schedule and time-consuming homework, I had a part-time job along with a volunteer gig at the local hospital. I had taken Kumon since third grade, but for some reason I was less interested in math problems or the prose passages of Sarah Orne Jewett than the shelf of books in the tight, dingy back room where parents waited uncomfortably to pick up their kids.

There was The Sign of the Four and A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; the Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe; Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Time Machine by H. G. Wells; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. And in a thick hardcover volume with a frayed cover, The Portable Faulkner.

The picture of an elderly Faulkner conveyed the very image of a dignified author. When not reading and writing about bullies and prostitutes, I often peeked at the lives of legendary authors in my uncle’s Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia set from 1981 (incidentally, the year I was born). He lived upstairs from me, and whenever I could, I snuck up and investigated Sinclair Lewis, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Baudelaire. I pictured myself in there one day, posed like Lewis with legs crossed.

But Faulkner intrigued me more. I remembered “The Bear” and “A Rose for Emily” from my textbooks. It was a dark period in my life—psychological horror and the brutal struggles of boyhood appealed to me. A story like “A Justice,” while strange, was disturbing enough to compel. So when my boss observed me reading the volume with awe, she gave it to me as a present.

I took it home and read “That Evening Sun,” another story featuring Quentin Compson and his boyhood. I read the Introduction by Malcolm Cowley, about the tortured life and work of this lone genius. I figured it was time to jump into a novel, and why not one about Quentin Compson? So one day, I picked up The Sound and the Fury from the Flushing Library on my way home from school.

The dialogue, the grit, the time and POV shifts, the balance between philosophical introspection and low humor, the variety of characterization—they blew me away.  Immediately after I finished the book, I read the Cliff Notes, and became even more fascinated by Faulkner’s world and the multiplicity of meanings under it. I thought, if only I could one day create such a world and write on Faulkner’s level.

Standing up in the subway, day in and day out, I consumed As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Sanctuary. Absalom, Absalom!‘s complex, repetitive structure had me fighting through headache after headache. And yet, the fight was worth it, as it managed to create a remarkable effect and impression on my mind. I began to read critical essays on all of Faulkner’s books and delved through his world.

Since then I have read a few authors who challenge Faulkner’s place as the greatest of all time, but it was by reading his books that I realized the author I wanted to be: one who created a panorama of society, who uncompromisingly portrayed it, who constantly challenged himself and innovated his craft to produce a large body of diverse work. It turned out to take much longer than I ever assumed, and often it seemed like it would never happen. Now that it has and seems it will continue into the foreseeable future, I have to credit my reading Faulkner on a crowded train while standing up and hoping I wouldn’t get jumped.

Looking back, I couldn’t have fallen in love any other way.