Wild Palms - Book Review
I recently re-read the novel The Wild Palms by William Faulkner, which he published in 1939. Faulkner originally titled this work If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, a verse from Psalm 137. From the first read (in high school), I have been fascinated how Faulkner weaves together two different tales, changing from chapter to chapter, about two couples fleeing—in one case convention and in the other a natural disaster. The Wild Palms chapters follow two lovers Harry and Charlotte. After meeting Harry, an unremarkable medical intern who is working in a large hospital in New Orleans, Charlotte leaves her two daughters and her husband and travels with him to Chicago. Harry is somewhat of a neophyte about life and love, but Charlotte is a ‘modern’, amoral woman who seems more in charge—at least initially. Harry has never been with a woman. In typical Faulkner style, he writes that Harry “might have discovered that love no more exists just at one spot and in one moment and in one body out of all the earth and all time and all the teeming breathed than sunlight does.” In Chicago as they settle into a domestic routine, Harry decides that he cannot handle ‘respectability’ and ‘convention’, so they leave and eventually end up in a mining camp in Utah. They are desperately in love and all they want is to be together. They have a raw, physical need for one another. When Charlotte becomes pregnant, they return south to New Orleans and, eventually to a cottage on the Mississippi gulf coast, under rustling, dry palm trees. There Charlotte succumbs to a botched abortion performed by Harry. He is sentenced to prison. In the end Harry proclaims, “Between grief and nothing I will take grief.” The chapters that are the setting for Old Man follow the travails of a convict and a pregnant woman, who through serendipity find themselves together for weeks adrift in a skiff during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The convict, an honorable man, is temporarily released by the state government to help with the flood disaster. He gets swept away on the skiff and is presumed dead. He ends rescuing the woman from a tree, and their adventure together begins. But while Charlotte and Harry are fleeing structure for the natural life, the convict and the lady are desperately seeking a way to escape nature’s ordeal that keeps them stranded on this small boat during the chaotic spring of 1927. The convict wants nothing more than to get the woman to safety, but on at least two occasions, they are driven away by the authorities at the point of a rifle barrel. The woman eventually gives birth in the skiff, the convict cutting the umbilical cord with an empty food can top. The flood subsides and they find dry ground, but they continue to stay together, at one point living with a Cajun alligator hunter in his stilted home somewhere in Louisiana. The two form an unlikely bond and could almost be a couple. The convict is determined to deliver the woman safely, keep the state’s skiff in working condition, and surrender himself to the proper authorities, although he has ample opportunity to alight and find his freedom. Eventually they find a sheriff’s deputy and the convict ends up back in Parchman Penitentiary (where Harry will also be imprisoned), while the woman and her baby are ‘rescued.’ Faulkner’s descriptions of the 1927 flood are the closest one can come to photographs, so evocative of the chaos they are. His almost Biblical-like descriptions of the water in all of its myriad forms (and sounds), animals fleeing the chaos, and man simply trying to endure are wonderful examples of Faulkner’s genius with the pen.
I partly drew inspiration from The Wild Palms for my first novel Above the Water, where I also use an alternating chapter sequence between the two main stories of two people trying to survive forces larger than themselves, hoping merely to ‘endure.’