Salvage the Bones (2011), by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward has won the 2011 National Book Award in fiction for her novel about a poor, rural Mississippi family which survives Hurricane Katrina, Salvage the Bones. As she hints in her novel, she owes something to William Faulkner, and I believe that debt would especially be to his 1930 novel, As I Lay Dying, about a poor, rural Mississippi family in the early twentieth century victimized by a flood.

It seems insightful to comment a bit on Faulkner in an approach to Salvage the Bones.

Faulkner’s advice to readers and writers, especially the latter, is to do your most serious reading in a comparatively few literary classics–the Bible, Greek mythology, Greek theater, the Samurai stories, Shakespeare, and others from ancient to modern masters.

Faulkner made himself a mythic: he writes about the American South as an “experimental” modernist but his stories are universal, updated versions of classic fundamental myths about the human condition.

Go Down, Moses is an essential Faulkner book, especially its almost mystical episode, “The Bear,” telling of a series of annual hunting trips into the Mississippi wilderness in the 1800s in which the woods are a timeless, primeval setting where racial distinctions diminish and a fundamental drama plays out, especially growing up and discovering the beauty, suffering and mystery in human experience, “coming of age.” To enter Faulkner’s Mississippi wilderness is to receive a natural baptism, to undergo a “rite of passage,” to experience a conversion.

Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, based in part on the biblical King David story but far more deeply on the desperate imperative of Adam (here named Thomas Sutpen) to create from a harsh wilderness a refuge following a latter-day version of expulsion from Eden, seems to me Faulkner’s greatest and most prevalent work if initially his least accessible. Once you get caught up in it, many other writers seem flat, bland, trivial.

Sutpen, born to a poor wandering West Virginia family, is stunned as a boy when as a message-bearer he is turned away from the front door of a Tidewater plantation mansion by a liveried servant who takes the message only at the barred ajar back door; Sutpen spends his prime years in the early-to-mid 1800s creating by Herculean hook and crook “Sutpen’s Hundred” in Mississippi, an enormous plantation, a grand refuge, a new Eden; in short, a New World; only to have the storm of the Civil War devastate it and him. Greek and biblical dramas infuse Absalom, Absalom!

I’ve never thought As I Lay Dying one of Faulkner’s major works, though many have. Notwithstanding its magnificent success as an innovative experimental novel making a deathly poor and touching family revelatory of us all, As I Lay Dying shows a constrained scope, a small drama, a lack of Big News. Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August seem grand in comparison to As I Lay Dying albeit Faulkner called the latter a tour de force.

Salvage the Bones, giving us some stirring and beautiful writing, might have been written by one of Faulkner’s better students (though I don’t recall that he formally had any), emphasis on As I Lay Dying, and accordingly seems not only stylistically but adaptively dated and hence well-written but small. It suffers from the constraints of close patterning, a pitfall no matter how major is your adopted mentor. For example, I’ve a hunch that its title, and quite beautifully aptly, comes from the second-to-last sentence in the second paragraph of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech in Stockholm in 1950 and its context in that paragraph:

“…Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed–love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands….”

Ward’s fictional (but, you feel, modeled closely on her own) family lives near a rural junkyard through which her widowed, tough and embittered father barely manages a living for his daughter, Esch (the narrator of the story), and brothers Skeetah, Randall and Junior. The family loves their pit bull, a bitch named China with a litter. The kids’ friends include Big Henry and Esch’s heartthrob, Manny, father of her child with whom she has just become pregnant. There is a wonderful chapter about Esch and her brothers and friends stealing worm medicine from a farmer by creeping up on his isolated farm. This adventure takes a step or two into Faulkner’s mythological settings.

Otherwise, Salvage the Bones seems old if sad as well as sadly defiant news about pit bulls, dog fights, youthful posturing, living on the edge of things, facing the impersonal dragon of Nature. There seems no way out. Sutpen’s Edenic urge (so much more revelatory than “greed” and so mythically relevant to an understanding of much human disaster, e.g., the recent Great Recession)…nothing so transcendent is to be found in Salvage the Bones.

Perhaps the central problem in this very capable novel can be encapsulated: Esch is reading Greek mythology at her school and tries, in a way that almost suggests to me a homework assignment, to draw parallels to the life around her. It isn’t for me organic to the story. It’s tell, not show.