Gavin Stevens

Knight’s Gambit

Knights GambitIn carrying on the idea of reading things I might not normally read, this past week I read Knight’s Gambit by William Faulkner (1897 – 1962).  I have never read Faulkner before, due to a number of reasons including my not wanting to.  American literary fiction older than the 1960s is really tough for me to force myself to read.  Heck, sometimes even some of it after the 1960s….  In any case, the reason I picked up this collection by Faulkner is actually because it is crime stories, in a sense. Well, the main character is lawyer Gavin Stevens and that could be argued because maybe the main character is actually Yoknapatawha County, Mississippi.  As far as these being crime stories, well, they fit that description about as well as they fit any other. Anyway, Knight’s Gambit was published in 1949 and contains five short stories and a novella.

Here is the truth:  I expected this to be pushing 2 stars; I expected to despise this entire book. Instead, I really enjoyed and appreciated (that is two different sentiments) the first five stories in this collection.  Those five stories make up nearly exactly half of the pages in the book.  Then I read the other half of the book, which is entirely the novella “Knight’s Gambit” for which the book is titled.  That rubbish was so bad that it literally obliterated my memory and interest of all the stories that I had read previously. 

  • Smoke (1932) (Harper’s, April 1932)
  • Monk (1937) (Scribner’s, May 1937)
  • Hand Upon the Waters (1939) (Saturday Evening Post, November 4, 1939)
  • Tomorrow (1940) (Saturday Evening Post, November 23, 1940)
  • An Error in Chemistry (1946) (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1946)
  • Knight’s Gambit (1949)

After I read Smoke, I was a little skeptical, because it seemed like the hero might be a dishonest – if even for good purposes – chap and I disliked that somewhat. It was a good story, though, because I really bought into it. I was friends with the characters, I could see and smell the courtroom, I was invested in the history of the situation. Since it is the reader’s first meeting with Stevens, the first impression is important. He was windy, he was maybe a bit of a hustler. He seemed also to have an insight into the other characters and their rôles that maybe feels a little unfair. The writing style was no problem for me whatsoever. I think the setting here is extremely well-written; one feels right there in town.

Monk is probably a little less than Smoke.  I like, though, that it portrays Stevens in a somewhat different situation than a room in which he is in the spotlight.  Monk is a story that seems to have been rewritten and re-composed dozens of times in stories and TV episodes since.  Something about it is not uncommon, but the story is still engaging.  Stevens’ questions and the narrative that sifts through the past come in a strong tone and contain a lot of vibrant colors. After reading these two stories, I was on my way to thinking Faulkner is a not a total waste of time.

Hand Upon The Waters is one of my favorites in this collection (the other being Tomorrow).  This story feels the most noir/crime. It has more suspense and upfront violence than the others do, somehow.  If one could consider Faulkner as edge-of-your-seat, this one would be that description. It has wild characters and a prop-item that is key to the story. This story contained, what I feel, is a lot of the truest representation of the other character’s responses to Stevens.  In the other stories it almost seems like Stevens is some prima donna who is adjudicating among people who everyone knows are backwoods, simple folk. In most cases, Stevens seems to be given a deferential respect that he deserves, but is not resented for. In this story, the other characters seem to choose to not be so cowed simply because an educated Harvard man is on the scene. 

You see, Harvard only means something to an already advanced class of people. You already have to have an appreciation or an impression of institutions of education and the differences between them for Harvard to mean something. Its an empty concept, not one of awe, to many in these stories. 

Tomorrow is another top notch story. I think it is my second favorite story – until I run through the storyline in my head, and then it becomes my favorite. I love how the history of the scenario is told – not overtold. I love how the narrators have opinions that color their explanations. I also love the sense of justice and loyalty that is heavy on every single page. Truthfully, the story does take some work from the reader, because having read all the collection, I see Faulkner moving more toward the prose in Knight’s Gambit and away from the slightly more spare and straightforward Smoke. Sometimes the convoluted and colorful manner of writing suits the storyline perfectly – as it does here.  I really liked Mrs. Pruitt and her pea-shelling while she told the story. I was right there on the porch.

An Error in Chemistry is also a good story – mainly for the characterizations and the sense of “it takes a village.”  However, as a crime story it relies on that annoying conceit that crops up here and there in fiction (written and on screen).  So, in 2021, I just could not be as impressed by this one – through no fault of Faulkner, I guess. The story just hinges on a thing that now has become cliché.  It actually suits that it was first printed in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The best parts of the story are the Sherriff and the whiskey and their importance to the story really cannot be overstated. So readers should ignore the silly crime and focus on the way Faulkner wove these other elements into this story. Once again, though, Stevens is a formidable hero.

Then the tragedy and disaster of Knight’s Gambit. Now, I am utterly sure there are American Lit experts out there who will extol the virtues of this story. I am sure there are French fanboys who will not even entertain hearing anything but praise for this novella. I am, however, a straight-shooter – just like many of Faulkner’s dear characters – and I will tell you that this is a heap of dung. At this point, if this is Faulkner’s “signature prose style” then he needed to stop.  This is a mix between trying to emulate James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and writing exactly how Southerners talk.  No one should write whole novellas how Southerners talk. Ever.  Now, there is a zeitgeist in the world that Southerners are “good salt of the earth” people. There is a manufactured belief that they are the lords of hospitality and good manners. Further, there is a sort of feeling that they are good cooks, good farmers, and good people. I sincerely honestly have yet to find the truth in these stereotypes/images that are proclaimed. Its all propaganda if you ask me.  I talk to Southerners a lot and lawd ha mercy, most o’ the time, I want the interaction to stop hurting me. Seriously, who in their right mind would write a story entirely as the stream of consciousness [I almost chose a different word than “consciousness” here…..] of Southerners? 

It is not quaint, insightful, or unique. Its tedious and unnecessary. In Knight’s Gambit the story is written in this “Southern” fashion and at this point Faulkner had placed Stevens on such a high-pedestal that the story is nearly all an homage to Stevens’ greatness and wonder. At the same time, the character in the story is actually pared down and reduced even further, so it is very difficult to even get ahold of what the heck we are all praising. 

Now, I don’t know how the war changed or affected Faulkner, but suddenly he seems to have developed the need to preach at the reader about his opinions, which on occasion blurrily become Stevens’ as well. And the storyline is utterly lost constantly in this mess. But there is also a Hispanic man and horses.  This is garbage. Avoid it. There ain’t nothin’ to be found in this mud, this dawg won’ hunt, y’all.

Anyway, I utterly recommend whole-heartedly for good readers to enjoy the five other stories in this book I think every good reader would enjoy them, or at least profit from having read them. Stevens – in those stories – is an excellent character to meet and know about.  Do not believe the hype about Knight’s Gambit. Seriously, its one of those “literary circles” pieces that demonstrates the “Emperor Has No Clothes” anecdote.

4 stars – for everything but Knight’s Gambit, which I refuse to recognize.