Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Faulkner and Friends
by Vicki Salloum
Los Angeles, Underground Voices, 2014
softcover $13.99 US
In her debut novel, Faulkner and Friends, New Orleans author Vicki Salloum pays tribute in various ways to the Nobel-prizewinning American novelist, William Faulkner (1897-1962). Anyone who has studied literature in North America is usually familiar with one of his works, whether it be his frequently anthologized short story, “A Rose for Emily” ; his amusing novel, The Reivers; or those favourites for university American Literature courses, Light in August and As I Lay Dying. His 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury, one of the landmark works of the 20th century, is set in Yoknapatawpha County novels, a fictional county in Mississippi based on Lafayette County where Faulkner lived most of his life. The American James Joyce, Faulkner is known for his experimental (modernist) works populated by eccentric characters from the American South. His characters live under the cloud of their history, which includes slavery and loss of the Civil War (1861-5). Some escape the weight of their heritage, others do not.
Ms Salloum has created a fictional book store in New Orleans, called “Faulkner and Friends” as the setting for her novel. The name of the shop may remind someone of the famous Paris book store, Shakespeare and Company, where such literary luminaries as Joyce, Fitzgerald and Hemingway hung out. In fact, the central character of Faulkner and Friends, Annie Ajami, aspires to be like Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company in providing not just a book shop but a salon and haven for writers, and a beacon of culture in a run-down neighbourhood. Her plans, though engaging, seem fragile from the start. Her location is not a prime one and she faces competition from big box stores. On her first day, she sells no books, and gives refuge to a homeless grandmother with two troubled boys in tow, Feanyo and Nehemiah.
“The past is never dead; it’s not even past,” says one of William Faulkner’s characters, and this is very true for all of the major characters in Faulkner and Friends. Annie is trying to put behind her the car crash into Lake Pontchartrain which she survived, but in which her husband died. Other characters are also haunted by their pasts. One of Annie’s first customers is a once-famous novelist, Martin Everillo, whose first novel was short listed for the Pulitzer Prize. Martin, who now prefers to be called “Leo”, is struggling with alcoholism. Zella, the grandmother, feels guilt over her family. Feayo, troubled by horrible childhood memories, commits a terrible crime. Subsequently, in a hold-up, Leo tries to protect Feayo, with tragic results.
A book talk at the store, led by Leo, establishes the central question of the novel. At Annie’s invitation, Leo discusses Faulkner’s Light in August, focusing on the loneliness and perpetual unease of one of the central characters. An irate audience member declares: “Don’t patronize me because I don’t have sympathy for your ne’er-do-well drifter.” The need to have sympathy for those whom society has left behind, even at personal sacrifice, is key to the novel. In the end, at her lowest ebb, Annie gains solace from the realization that she has met wonderful people and has made a difference.
Like Faulkner, Salloum writes impressionistically and uses stream-of-consciousness narration, demanding that the reader do some work to put together the strands of the characters’ stories. While his main themes are race, and the Southern heritage while hers is poverty. In some respects, Salloum’s novel resembles John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in its celebration of people on society’s fringes.
To elevate his stories beyond Southern regionalism into the universal, Faulkner often established parallels between them and familiar myths or tales. In Salloum’s novel, spirituality elevates the story. On her knees in St. Mary’s Church, Annie tries to pray, “but all she could think of was Leo and Nehemiah and the unfinished task ahead, and the truth she could not escape: too late, too late.” Then, it is as if she hears Zella’s voice reminding her of all she has accomplished: “Ain’t nobody’s done as good as you. And right now is all you’ve got. It’s all anybody ever got.” Yet, despite this spiritual element, Faulkner and Friends is a sad novel, which leaves us wishing that the principal characters could have lived long and prospered.
Ruth Latta’s most recent novel is The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa, Canada, Baico Publishing, 2013, ISBN 978-1-927481-36-3, email@example.com)