Kindling Faulkner: The Fiction of Scott Turow

Culture Watch

Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York and is a book review editor at HNN. He’s the author of a number of books, including The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003) and is currently researching a project on the way historiographic visions are embedded in the careers of pop culture artists.

Let's get something straight at the outset:  There's a limited amount of cultural juice to be squeezed in comparison of any two writers, let alone novelists as different as William Faulkner and Scott Turow.  Not only did Faulkner and Turow write about very different people in very different places, they barely shared a century:  Faulkner was born in the nineteenth, and Turow, God willing, has decades to go in the twenty-first, with all that necessarily implies about their consciousness and frame of reference.  Perhaps more to the point, Faulkner's career was dedicated to smashing some of the very conventions of literature that Turow has avowedly embraced, among them a commitment to traditional narrative and the concomitant values and rewards that result from a large general audience (the more succinct term among modernists of Faulkner's stripe would be "pandering").  Though we live in a postmodern world in which scholars and critic routinely blur, if not erase, the line between what was once considered "high" and "low" culture, many of those of us most committed to doing so hesitate to draft Faulkner for such an enterprise.  Even in an assertively secular, post-poststructuralist order, there's something sacrilegious about it.

But let's go ahead anyway, in the spirit of Whitman more than Baudrillard.

At the most superficial level, to call Turow "the Faulkner of the crime novel" (or, to be more generically specific, the legal thriller of which he is considered a founding father) is nevertheless to communicate something useful:  he's really good at it.  Stipulating that Elmore Leonard deserves a special citation for his Hemingwayesque dialogue (among other virtues), I'd put Turow at the front of a pack that includes very fine writers like George Pelecanos, Archer Mayor, or Sue Grafton.  Each of these people have their own distinctive wrinkles and voices; Mayor, for example, squarely inhabits the subgenre of the police procedural, while the protagonist of Grafton's "abcederian" series, Kinsey Millhone, carries on the tradition of the private detective pioneered by Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and extended, with mixed results, by Robert Parker's Spenser (with a gender twist).  But they all write separate-yet-connected, densely plotted novels with recurrent characters, in books of similar length and published at regular intervals.  Moreover, they all have a strong sense of place:  Leonard will forever be associated with Detroit (later Florida), Pelecanos with the mean streets of the nation's capital, Mayor with not-quite idyllic Vermont, Grafton with the fictional Santa Teresa (located somewhere on the Southern California coast in the figurative vicinity of Santa Barbara, first imagined by Grafton's acknowledged influence, Ross MacDonald).

But none of these writers have conjured up a world as a world quite as vividly as Turow has in his fictional Kindle County, a sprawling metropolitan area that I think of as in the shadow of Chicago but more vibrant than greater Cleveland or Indianapolis (but whose hapless baseball team, the Trappers, is clearly modeled on the Cubs).  This vibrancy, of course, is relative—the so-called Center City at the heart of Kindle is an empty husk that struggles to restore its former industrial glory.  Nor is the sociological range of characters, from thugs to municipal politicians, all that great; certainly sin and redemption are tightly entwined in these people.  But within such parameters a remarkable array of human diversity thrives, as even the names of the names of characters—Rusty Sabich, Nile Eddgar, Muriel Wynn, Robbie Feaver—suggest.

As such, Turow comes closer than any of his peers at approaching Faulkner's now-mythical Yoknapatawpha County.  There is no decaying aristocracy of the ilk of the Satoris family in Kindle County, but this is at least in part a reflection of a difference in regional milieu; if Yoknapatawpha is a land of white and black sharecroppers in the shadow of great plantations, Kindle is a land of second generation European immigrants clawing their way to the suburban perimeter of a brown underclass (The proudly dignified Argentine immigrant, Alejandro Stern, protagonist of The Burden of Proof (1991), does have a kind of Faulknerian stature, however, nowhere more so than in the arriviste quality of that stature).  What the two fictional worlds share is a population of brooding, conflicted protagonists inhabiting social landscapes where even minor characters have an edgy intelligence.  Faulkner might not describe a woman like the African American law clerk Marvina Hamlin as having "not heard another human being say anything worth considering since her mother told her at a very early age that she had to watch out for herself," as Turow writes in his most recent novel, Innocent, but you can find people like her in his work, even if an African American law clerk would be as likely to show up in Light in August as a Martian.  Turow can similarly evoke the sense of incestuous rivalry that looms over Faulkner's work in the multi-volume rivalry between Rusty Sabich and his nemesis Tommy Molto:  "They managed a strained cordiality, not only as a matter of professional necessity, but perhaps because they had overcome the same cataclysm together.  They were like two brothers who never got along but were scarred and shaped by the same upbringing." (This line is from Innocent, the sequel to Turow's 1987 debut and smash bestseller, Presumed Innocent.)

Indeed, the centrality of multi-generational family drama may be the one quality more than any other that links Turow to Faulkner.  The haunted Quentin Compson of Absalom, Absalom has his analogue in Rusty Sabich's son Nathaniel in Innocent, both books in which unwitting incestuous relationships are emotional time bombs with fatal results.  For Faulkner, the long reach of the 1860s casts shadows over a series of novels; for Turow, it's the 1960s, particularly in The Laws of Our Fathers (1996), which has a lengthy Berkeley backdrop for the Kindle County trial that takes place a generation later.  In Ordinary Heroes (2005), Stuart Dubinsky, a minor character in Presumed Innocent, comes across a cache of letters that reveals his father's shocking life as a court martialed lawyer in World War II.  When Elmore Leonard turns his hand to historical subjects in his westerns or a novel like Cuba Libre (1998), the results are often a lark.  But there's a gravity in Turow's work that can plausibly be considered Faulknerian in its profound recognition of the burden that the past imposes long after the book is presumably “over,” nowhere more so in the new novel, in which what I regard as an important secret remains dangerously undisclosed.  As Faulkner would say, “the past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

As these examples suggest, the Turow/Faulkner obsession with family history is embedded in a larger context of American history—and, more importantly, an acute consciousness of time itself.  Turow often overtly manipulates his narration by presenting information in an asynchronous manner, much as Faulkner does.  Again, this is not an uncommon technique in the mystery genre generally, where crimes are painstakingly reconstructed ("Prosecutors are historians," Rusty Sabich notes in Innocent, noting that "they never get it completely right.").  But Turow's deployment of this technique is typically more than a storytelling gambit to advance the plot of his novels.  It's part of a broader literary strategy in which time is a virtual character its own right.  Faulkner, of course, takes this idea even further.  In his work, time is liquid, shifting sometimes over the course of a single sentence.  This almost three-dimensional, Picassoesque, deployment of time on his fictional canvases is not merely a hallmark of his style, but of his greatness, a greatness that will likely give his work a sense of esteem and relevance for the foreseeable future.

Turow has a different strength:  readability.  If Faulkner makes time liquid, Turow gives narrative—a dimension of literary art that has for too long been overlooked in critical discourse—a comparable liquidity.  As tens of millions of his readers know, Turow's novels flow so seamlessly as to engender a compulsive desire to finish them quickly.  Kindle County is always a great place to visit, even if you can't live there.  Anybody who can pull off this trick again and again deserves to be considered a great artist.  Is Turow as great as Faulkner?  Maybe not.  But he’s comparable in ways that help us appreciate both.

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