Let us for a moment consider the sequence. I just finished the masterful Light in August and I know the next book is Absalom, Absalom!–one of my all-time favorite books. In this era, Faulkner was clearly at the top of his game, writing some of the greatest American books of the twentieth century. And in between two of his masterpieces is Pylon.
I had never read this book. I knew nothing of the story. I knew the book only by reputation. It’s one of the few that is not set in Yoknapatawpha county and it is generally regarded as his worst or second-worst book.
But I found myself being fascinated by how a book like this could exist in this place in the bibliography. Through As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary and Light in August you see a writer gaining his voice and writing with increasing confidence. And you see him developing recurring themes that would bind all his work together into an anthology of stories that would ultimately be greater than the sum of its parts. And then there’s Pylon out of nowhere.
Consider Sanctuary. Faulkner himself called it a cheap idea. He was needing money so he wrote a sensational novel that would be sure to at least get some attention. But in Sanctuary Faulkner stays within his own style and although the story may seem cheap, but the novel at least seems like it belongs. And then there’s Pylon out of nowhere.
Coming off of the deeper themes of Light in August, he must have been stewing on what would become Absalom, Absalom!, Pylon must have been an attempt to have a little bit of fun. Unfortunately it comes across as an odd-ball in all of Faulkner’s other work.
None of that is to say that Pylon is a terrible, unreadable disaster. Through a lot of the book it is downright entertaining, if not just a wee bit forgettable. The story involves a pilot, Roger, and his unconventional family. The “family” consists of himself, his wife, his child and his “jumper” who live off his winnings as an airplane racer and barnstorming. The novel opens with them needing money from an upcoming race.
Family lives paycheck to paycheck (which do not come at predictable times), earning just barely enough to survive. To make matters worse, Roger’s airplane is a bit out of date. Consider Jiggs, the mechanic’s, words:
“We might if they would let us fly it in the two hundred cubic inch,” Jiggs said. He took three quick draws from the cigarette stub like daring a stick at a snake and snapped it through the stillopen door as a though it were the snake, or maybe a spider, and opened the paper. “Ship’s obsolete. It was fast two years ago, but that’s two years ago. We’d be O.K. now if they had just quit building racers when they finished the one we got. There aint another pilot out there except Shumann that could have even qualified it.”
Roger makes up from having out-of-date equipment by taking extrordinary risks. He stays competitive in races by rounding markers (pylons) in tighter corners than fellow pilots dare.
Racing aside, the family are barnstormers and put on exhibitions. His wife is a former jumper. And the current jumper is his wife’s lover. This ménage à trois living arrangement attracts the attention of a local reporter who wants to revitalize his floundering career with a story about the group.
The reporter (whose name I forget, he is almost always referred to as “the reporter”) follows the family for a bit, and his study and the relationship between the group makes up the bulk of the story. Normally, Faulkner pays relatively little attention to action sequences, instead choosing to explore relationships, human nature, social justice and society. This is where Faulkner usually excels, however, in this book the opposite is true. The exploration of social taboos falls flat, but the airplane races are exciting. Seriously, I genuinely enjoyed the action sequences.
Far more interesting than the book is conjecturing what Faulkner must have been thinking and feeling at the time. It’s a well-known fact that he was obsessed with aviation. He joined the British Armed Forces (and claimed to have joined the Royal Flying Corps) during the first world war, but never saw action. He wrote his first novel about fighter pilots returning from war. Pylon should seem like a natural fit.
Every author, musician or artists deserves the right to try something a little different every now and again. He could have been simply “worn out” from such an emotional heavy book like Light In August. Maybe he really was wanting to return to a simpler subject.
And I should certainly not give him a hard time. He wrote four straight novels that were excellent, but then there’s Pylon out of nowhere.
Curious, curious, curious.