Here's how it's done-8

The Baltimore Sun

Years ago, before heading to campus to sit in a library carrel and pretend to scholarship, I would listen to Hughes Rudd's dry commentaries on the CBS morning news program. 

So when I saw in a bookstore a copy of his My Escape from the CIA (and into CBS), it was irresistible. Here are the three opening paragraphs of "The Death of William Faulkner," which he published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1963:

He had been in pain for several weeks, wearing a brace to support the injured back, and people around the square said maybe that was why he started drinking again. The bourbon came down from Memphis, although the nearest bootlegger was seventeen mles from town and Memphis was more like seventy. But the bootlegger has a very limited stock and, besides, if you buy from him, everybody knows how much you're drinking. They know you're drinking anyway, but they don't know how much, and that came to be a matter of some satisfaction--or of pride--in Oxford, Mississippi. 

He had been trying to quit drinking altogether, and he had; but two weeks before, he'd gone out on a new horse, and the horse came back without him. The cook saw the horse come back and told his wife, and she found him in the red-clay cut where the new highway was going in just south of town. He said the horse had "roached its back" and thrown him, and it hurt, and he told a friend of his, "A horse ain't got much sense. A mule has more sense. A mule will take care of you as well as himself." 

But anyway, that started the drinking again, said the people around the square, because his back hurt him, and he'd taken a couple of bad falls from a horse not long before that up in Virginia. He got medicine for the pain at the drugstore on the square, but it wasn't enough, so the bourbon started coming down again from Memphis. That's what they said.

We know that the he must be William Faulkner, because we have seen the title to the article. Withholding the name becomes a way of emphasizing Faulkner's importance. He is the most prominent figure in Oxford, Mississippi, the one everyone in town talks about. The unnamed he is a looming presence in the article. 

And they do talk about him, the people around the square, gossiping about his falls from horses, gossiping about his health, gossiping about his drinking. And because living in a small town is like being under perpetual surveillance, though everyone will know you're drinking, buying from out of town rather than from the local bootlegger will yield some prized fragment of privacy. They will speculate, but they will not know

The concluding "That's what they said" in the third paragraph is a transition, because the next paragraph begins a procession of residents of Oxford talking about William Faulkner, about their encounters with him and the things he said and did. This is a strategy, because the family is tight-lipped about the circumstances of Faulkner's death and resentful of the presence of a flock of reporters for the funeral. The family wants privacy, but the town thinks that Faulkner belongs to them. And they talk about him, endlessly. 

The three-part introduction--the bourbon, the fall, the bourbon--is also structural, pointing toward a salient fact to be discovered in those conversations with the residents of Oxford. Faulkner, it turns out, did not die in Oxford. His body was brought to the funeral home from Byhalia, north of Holly Springs. There's an alcoholic clinic in Byhalia, and "it seemed everyone knew that Faulkner had died there, some said in a convulsion, some said in a fall downstairs." No one can say anything for sure.  

Hughes Rudd's technique is a little homage to the master. It is Faulknerian to write about a principal character, remote, unknown and perhaps unknowable, seen through the perceptions of secondary characters, and especially through their talk. That's what they said. 


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