William Faulkner, Pylon
November 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
Pylon (1935) differs significantly from Faulkner’s other novels released in the 1930s. It is not set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, but rather in a fictionalized New Orleans, New Valois, and rural Ohio during the heyday of the “barnstormers,” acrobatic biplane flyers who would do dangerous (and often fatal) stunts and races for the entertainment of the crowds who would follow them from town to town as they staged their shows. In addition, Pylon revolves around the interactions of six characters who are part of these shows: the reporter, whose recounting of events within the flying troupe serves ultimately to divide them; Laverne, the mechanic who is romantically involved with two of the troupe; Jack, Laverne’s son, who is easily angered whenever questions of his parentage arise; Roger Shumann, the main pilot of the barnstormers, who may or may not be Jack’s father; Jack Holmes, the show jumper, who has also been involved with Laverne; and Biggs, another mechanic who quirks and alcoholic binges help fuel the tragedy that concludes Pylon.
Faulkner had long had interest in flying and he himself took part in some air shows in the mid-1930s. Through many of these characters’ comments, both in their internal thoughts and in their dialogues with others, there often is a connection between the freedom of flying and the attempts of the characters to liberate themselves from the shackles that they encountered when they would land after their last acrobatic feat. It feels more personal than just an author attempting to get into the skin and discover the soul of the characters. Certainly the first paragraph tries to capture this quality of freedom juxtaposed with mundane reality:
For a full minute Jiggs stood before the window in a light spatter of last night’s confetti lying against the windowbase like spent dirty foam, lightpoised on the balls of his greasestained tennis shoes, looking at the boots. Slantshimmered by the intervening plate they sat upon their wooden pedestal in unblemished and inviolate implication of horse and spur, of the posed countrylife photographs in the magazine advertisements, beside the easelwise cardboard placard with which the town had bloomed overnight as it had with the purple-and-gold tissue bunting and the trodden confetti and broken serpentine – the same lettering, the same photographs of the trim vicious fragile aeroplanes and the pilots leaning upon them in gargantuan irrelation as if the aeroplanes were a species of esoteric and fatal animals not trained or tamed but just for the instant inert, above the neat brief legend of name and accomplishment or perhaps just hope.
Faulkner tells the interconnected stories of these daredevils in an episodic, seven chapter format, that moves across time and space. There is a wealth of detail here, with aural and visual descriptions used to complement and reinforce the thematic connection between flight (and freefall) and human desire to escape fate. One example of this can be seen in the public address announcer’s description of a show jumper’s fall from the plane:
“–still gaining altitude now; the ship has a long way to go yet. And then you will see a living man, a man like yourselves – a man like half of yourselves and that the other half of yourselves life, I should say – hurl himself into space and fall for almost four miles before pulling the ripcord of the parachute; by ripcord we mean the trigger that –” Once inside, Jiggs paused, looking swiftly about, breasting now with very immobility the now comparatively thin tide which still set toward the apron and talking to itself with one another in voices forlorn, baffled, and amazed:
“What is it now? What are they doing out there now?”
“Fella going to jump ten miles out of a parachute.”
There is something terrifyingly beautiful about watching stunts. Knowing that if anything goes wrong – even if the timing were off by a split second, that there could be a horrific crash or a body flattened by the ground due to a malfunctioning parachute – adds to the excitement of the viewer (and the participants, of course). These reckless stunts serve as the perfect metaphor for impulsive, irresponsible relationships such as the ones Faulkner describes here in Pylon. Just as what happens when the stunts are not executed properly, there are casualties in these type of relationships. We see it through the belligerence of young Jack, who does not know if Roger Shumann or Jack Holmes is his father (or if anyone else is). Laverne’s dithering between Roger and Jack (not to mention implied flirtations with others) creates dissension among the barnstorming troupe. Roger’s unwillingness to settle down and (as it can be inferred although not proven in the text) be a father strikes sparks between him and others close to him.
It is this combination of high-flying stunts and risk-taking relationships that make Pylon a gripping read. It is hard not to get caught up in the drama unfolding, as the characters seem destined for a messy, explosive denouement. Faulkner does a good job in laying out these characters’ flaws and how they combine to create a tragedy. Yet there are places in the novel where the dialogue feels a little forced, as if the characters have been slotted into predetermined roles and that outside of Jiggs and the reporter, there is not as much character development as could have been done. It is as though Roger, Laverne, and the elder Jack have their triangle subsumed into the concrete metaphor of the race and the pylon/tower around which they must make their sharp breaking turns. The conclusion suffers due to this, as there is not the full, visceral punch to the gut that might be expected from the setup leading into the final two chapters of the novel. This is despite a very elegant final paragraphs that attempt to show just how tragic the events leading up to the tragedy were. Faulkner here had the makings of a remarkable novel, but due to the uneveness in the character portrayals, Pylon instead is relegated to a merely good yet lesser novel of his.
Originally posted in February 2012 on Gogol’s Overcoat as part of a weekly “Faulkner Friday.” Novels reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.