I imagine most every American who has made it through high-school has an notion of what Faulkner is all about. William Faulkner casts a long shadow on literature, especially southern literature.
I also imagine that most any American can think of a few things that a Faulkner novel would contain: commentary on the relationships of black and white southerners, the imatation of southern accents, run-on sentences that can go on for multiple pages, an idiot man-child and of course Yoknapatawpha County. You’ll find little of any of that in Soldiers’ Pay.
Soldiers’ Pay is Faulkner’s first novel. It was published in 1926, making him 29 when published. It’s easy to picture a struggling young poet living in New Orleans sitting down and attempting the great American Novel. Attempting something daring, something important, something large. So it’s easy to picture a young William Faulkner, having failed to become a war hero, banging this out on a typewriter.
The plot of the story concerns a solder with a terrible injury returning home from the first world war. But that’s not what the book is about. This book is about how a generation will deal with the aftermath of a terrible war.
The craft of writing has changed a great deal since 1926. We now celebrate precision and brevity. Cormac McCarthy is often compared to Faulkner. But McCarthy is very brief and careful with sentences. Stripping them down to the point where one word removed would make the entire sentence fall apart. McCarthy even removes quotation marks from his writing. We love brief and unadorned writing. Try to use the fewest amount of words to and concisely communicate your point. That is the key to precise writing. Faulkner didn’t get the memo. As my friend Jason Golliher once put it, Faulkner wants to talk to you a while. Faulkner is cutting his teeth in this novel. He’s not William Faulkner, the great literary figure, yet.
Soldiers’ Pay has the reputation of being a not-very-good novel, I would phrase it as a not-very-good-Faulkner-novel. I’ve heard it called a mess, but despite it being the worst of his writing that I’ve read so far, it’s still pretty good.
The book itself is uneven. The first chapter (essentially a interminable train-ride scene involving the characters getting progressively drunk) seems like it doesn’t belong to the rest of the book. The opening of chapter two is a jarring shift in style. Later in the novel, the format of the dialog changes briefly to a play. You get the sense that Faulkner was an eager experimenter and he had to get a few things out of his system.
Shortly after the drunken train ride of chapter one, we find out that the injured solier (Donald Mahon) is engaged. He’s returning home to his fiancé. On the train we meet Joe Gilligan, a fellow soldier, and Mrs Margaret Powers, a recent widow. Gilligan and Mrs Powers know Mahon is dying and decide to accompany Mahon home. We eventually meet Cecily, Mahon’s fiancé. She’s a bit of a fun girl, I imagined a flapper-type. She’s not been faithful, in fact she’s surprised and perhaps disappointed that he’s still alive.
A fat local latin scholar named Januarious Jones argues with Mahon’s father about, well, I pause here to admit: I’m sort of lost as to what Jones has to do with the story. He seems to be there to simply provide some comedic relief as he brags about his powers of seduction.
As the story continues, Mahon’s health rapidly declines. He speaks little. He loses his sight. Meanwhile, Cecily becomes more and more wishy-washy about whether she will follow through with her commitment to marry him.
Without spoiling anything (remember the book is about changing morals and recovering from the war, not the plot) Cecily backs out of the wedding. Eventually Mrs Powers, perhaps out of pity, perhaps out of guilt, agrees to marry Mahon. He receives his “soldiers’ pay”.
The book is heartbreaking, funny, disjointed and sort of a mess. But I enjoyed it. And it clearly gives a promise of greatness to come.