Sanctuary is possibly Faulkner’s most controversial (or at least infamous) novel. I had read this book years ago and I remember thinking that it was easy to understand and a quick read, for a Faulkner novel. In this chronological reading project, I looked forward to it as a nice break from the difficult stream-of-consciousness and untrustworthy narrators of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. It was Faulkner’s first commercially successful book and Faulkner himself called the book a potboiler.
But, there was no getting around the subject matter. The plot is inherently horrific and at times truly terrifying. I knew it was not going to be ‘light reading,’ as opposed to ‘easy’ reading. As I made my way through the first five novels, I knew I would be getting to this rotten stuff sooner or later.
On a date of sorts, the young debutante Temple Drake and local bachelor Gowan Stevens are in a car accident—Stevens is an alcoholic and has decided to stop the date to search for moonshine. After the accident, they are discovered by Popeye, an extremely dangerous and sinister man who escorts them to the bootlegger’s house. Stevens spends the night at the house—getting more and more drunk—despite Temple’s pleading to leave. Over the course of the night, Temple meets a variety of characters, and there is enough foreshadowing to know that things will not end well for Temple.
Perhaps because I’ve gotten older. Perhaps because I see the world a bit different these days. Perhaps it was simply the mood I was in. But this time round, I had a hard time getting through the first quarter of the book. And to be sure, the first quarter is strangely terrifying. Faulkner paints a terrible and menacing picture and seems to do so with glee.
A murder happens and other horrifying events unfold. And the book takes on the plotting of a detective novel. A lawyer, Horace Benbow, becomes interested in the case and involves himself. Sanctuary takes the structure of a fine legal thriller. And in a strange twist, the hero (Benbow), who typically would be saving the day, turns out to be a terrible attorney. He loses the case. Even though this ends the novel, trust me, I’m not spoiling anything.
Midway through the book a minor subplot develops. On the grounds that it will give his establishment a “bad name” a hotel proprietor throws out the bootlegger’s common-law wife, Ruby. For a couple of chapters Horace attempts to find a place for Ruby and her child to stay. A sad commentary about society and classism emerges. For fear of developing a bad reputation, no one will give shelter to Ruby, even for the sake of a baby. This relatively minor subplot was compelling, sympathetically written and absolutely heartbreaking—classic Faulkner.
To say all this may sound like Sanctuary is a terrible book. It’s not. It’s quite good, both technically and artistically. But I found it oddly off-putting this time around. Faulkner never shies away from dark material, so I cannot say it was purely the violence that turned me off, but rather something about the gleeful menace of this story. But then again, that is probably the whole point of the story and why the book works so well as a thriller.