William Faulkner, "Shingles for the Lord"; New Orleans Sketches
November 21, 2012 § Leave a comment
In contrast to the past two stories discussed, “Red Leaves” (1939) and Light in August (1932), “Shingles for the Lord” (1943) is, on the surface at least, a lighter tale that does not explore the weighty issues of race and identity. It contains more comic moments than most of the stories explored to date in this series, yet beneath that comedic exterior lurks a shrewd and cutting portrayal of human behavior, particularly that of individuals who are more willing to invent ways to shirk irksome duties than they are to accept their own shortcomings. “Shingles for the Lord” is as much a fictional character sketch piece as it is a thematic story and in that it shares some elements in common with some of Faulkner’s earliest prose pieces, first printed in a New Orleans newspaper in 1925 and later collected in the late 1950s, with some edits, as New Orleans Sketches.
Faulkner often utilizes first person point of view to provide a witness’ account of the main protagonists and their ordeals. Here in “Shingles for the Lord,” we experience the action through the lens of the son of Res Grier, a seemingly shiftless Mississippi farmer who reluctantly takes part in a community repair of the local Methodist church:
So pap told again about how Old Man Killegrew had been off fox hunting all night, and nobody at home to lend him the froe but Mrs. Killegrew and the cook. And naturally, the cook wasn’t going to lend none of Killegrew’s tools out, and Mrs. Killegrew was worser deaf than even Killegrew. If you was to run in and tell her the house was afire, she would jest keep on rocking and say she thought so, too, unless she began to holler back to the cook to turn the dogs loose before you could even open your mouth.
“You could have gone yesterday and borrowed the froe,” Whitfield said. “You have known for a month now that you had promised this one day out of a whole summer toward putting a roof on the house of God.”
“We ain’t but two hours late,” pap said. “I reckon the Lord will forgive it. He ain’t interested in time, nohow. He’s interested in salvation.”
Whitfield never even waited for pap to finish. It looked to me like he even got taller, thundering down at pap like a cloudburst. “He ain’t interested in neither! Why should He be, when He owns them both? And why He should turn around for the poor, mizzling souls of men that can’t even borrow tools in time to replace the shingles on His church, I don’t know either. Maybe it’s just because He made them. Maybe He just said of Himself: ‘I made them; I don’t known why. But since I did, I Godfrey, I’ll roll My sleeves up and drag them into glory whether they will or no!’”
This passage goes right to the heart of the conflicts played out between Res and the others gathered together to repair the church’s roofing. Res is focused on why he could not do something at the time and place expected of him and the focus of his dialogue with Whitfield (whose surname is that of the famous 18th century minister associated with the Wesley brothers) is on self-justification. Whitfield, whose comments are later echoed in part by the others gathered together for the shingle making, eschews such justifications. Results and effort are what matter, not justifications for why someone has failed at a task.
Yet there is more to “Shingles for the Lord” than just this. Faulkner describes in detail the milieu of these farmers/drafted shingle makers. Apparently set during the Great Depression, there are references to the “work units” (parodied into “dog units” later on) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) being swapped or bartered as a means of exchanging effort for money in lieu of welfare checks. Res Grier is a comic portrayal of the sort of person who lives on the margins of society, tolerated by his peers but viewed dimly for his perceived lack of real contribution to society. However, there is more to Res than just his mishaps and complaints about how he is mistreated and misunderstood. At the story’s conclusion, after we have witnessed his foiled efforts to do something despite the disparaging remarks of his peers, after we have seen the terrible consequences of his attempt to pitch in, after he has been castigated and cast out (if only for a while) from the group, there is a resolve there in his final comments that take the comedy elements and turn them into something deeper and more complex than just a blustery old fool trying to justify his actions (or the lack of them) to his family. The reader is left imagining a Res Grier who may prove to be more than just a comically inept character, a personage who may have a bit too much in common with the rest of us for our comfort.
Nearly twenty years before “Shingles for the Lord” was published, Faulkner began the prose phase of his career (he first tried his hand at poetry, with mixed results) by writing a series of sketch stories for a New Orleans newspaper in 1925. Gathered together over thirty years later as New Orleans Sketches, these short sketches show Faulkner experimenting with the form later expressed so eloquently in “Shingles for the Lord.” Take for instance the opening paragraph to “New Orleans”:
“I love three things: gold; marble and purple; splendor, solidity, color.” The waves of Destiny, foaming out of the East where was cradled the infancy of the race of man, roaring over the face of the world. Let them roar: my race has ridden them. Upon the tides of history has my race ever put forth, bravely, mayhap foolhardily, as my ancient Phoenician ancestors breasted the uncharted fabulous seas with trading barques, seeking those things which I, too, love. Suns rise and set; ages of man rise and joy and battle and weep, and pass away. Let them: I, too, am but a lump of moist dirt before the face of God. But I am old, all the pain and passion and sorrows of the human race are in this breast: joys to fire, griefs to burn out the soul.”
In this story the embryonic structures for several of his late 1920s and 1930s novels can be found: The quick-shifting point of view narratives (the first quoted is “The Wealthy Jew,” followed within a page by “The Priest” before covering other characters from all walks of New Orleans life) seen in As I Lay Dying, the attempt to state in a simple, pithy passage some of the themes found in Light in August, and the sense of sinister, ominous foreboding akin to that of Sanctuary. Yet what “New Orleans” and the other sketches found in this initial prose period lack is a fully developed voice. We get a broad sense of the characters and their situations, yet there is not quite the profundity found in these tales compared to even a lesser-known story such as “Shingles for the Lord.”
New Orleans Sketches, however, is worth reading, if only as a coda tacked onto the study of Faulkner’s mature period of the 1930s and early 1940s. Despite being his first published prose pieces, these sketches ought not be read before the reader is at least somewhat familiar with Faulkner’s prose and how he developed the themes found within New Orleans Sketches in his later novels and short fiction. These pieces are a sort of juvenilia, as here the reader can see Faulkner working out how best to deliver the themes that interested him most (particularly issues of determinism and morality in a corrupt world), that point toward the fiction output of the 1929-1939 period. They are not as polished nor as deep, but they are interesting to read, as much for how Faulkner described the people and situations he witnessed during his time in New Orleans as for how he developed as a writer. One could even go so far as to argue that most of his most influential and popular stories were character sketches writ large, with a multitude standing in stead of a solitary human being. In future weeks, this topic may be explored in more depth, as more of his “uncollected short fiction” is added to the discussion queue.
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.