Monday, June 17, 2019
Yeah, That Long Hot Summer-With Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s Film Adaptation of William Faulkner’s Work In Mind
Yeah, That Long Hot Summer-With Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s Film Adaptation of William Faulkner’s Work In Mind
By Film Critic Emeritus Sam Lowell
“Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, have things gone to hell in a handbasket now that old Will Varner has gone to meet his maker, has gone to the shades, the shades of hell most likely” shouted Jefferson Baker out across the length of Varner’s General Store where he was the manager of just one of the late Will Varner’s enterprises in the holy of holies town of Frenchman’s Bend, which might have well have been called Varner’s Bend since every civil institution, and some not so civil like Minnie Littlejohn’s high class whorehouse on the edge of town, had the Varner brand attached to it some which way. (That whorehouse by the way Varner’s most lucrative business after the cotton fields, after that best 28,000 acres of sweet Mississippi bottomland in the great state of Mississippi and run by Minnie, his sweetie before he passed away although they never did get married like she was always badgering him to do, so everything was on the up and up except maybe the whores).
Jefferson Baker was doing all that confounded yelling in the direction of one Johnny Hodges from the American Literary Gazette who was in Frenchman’s Bend to do a story on the Varner legacy since Varner had been the real life redneck landowner model for some of the short stories that his old friend William Faulkner had done before he had hung up his shingle. (Between themselves ever since undergraduate days at Oxford, Oxford, Mississippi the home of the state university not the other one over in England or someplace like that they were Will and Hod but here William and Johnny will do.). Johnny was looking for background about how a low-rent redneck like Will Varner was able to hoodwink everybody in that part of the state, in that bottomland blessed county into acknowledging him as the leading figure. The leading figure as against what he, Varner, and maybe William too when he was creating his off-beat oafish characters, the “decaying gentry” that had run the county and state since about Robert E. Lee’s surrender.
That part of the story, that fly-catching the old staid rabble gentry was not some much what interested Johnny since William had pretty much covered those bases in his works wand which when all was said and done was a pretty straight story of a grizzled upstart grabbing those decaying gentry by the balls and squeezing them in the only way they understood trading their lands for leisure time money, but about the guy who inherited all those acres and the town’s major enterprises. That would be one Ben Quick who had had the sense to marry Will’s schoolmarm daughter, Miss Clara always called Miss Clara even long after she was married. Had by guile and wit shut out Will’s legitimate son, Jody, who was essentially an emotional cripple who couldn’t keep up the pace that Will and later as Ben took over more and more of the day to day running of the operations were able to keep up. Didn’t have that merciless mercenary take no prisoners and let the devil take the hinter post as he himself in his more candid if increasingly drunken moments would weep out to anybody who would listen, including his disgusted father.
The mention of the name Ben Quick, now his boss, by Johnny sent Jefferson Baker into spasms of shuttled speech, “That barn-burner, that bastard barn-burner and son of a barn-burner taking over is the end, is the end of whatever Will Varner had put together. You know Ben’s old man, Shep Quick, got killed one reckless night when he got caught with a can of kerosene going after Bill Monroe’s barns when Bill wouldn’t give him some payment for some service that he had never provided. If you interview Ben don’t tell him I told you what happened to the old man. Don’t tell him that it was Will Varner, and a lot of the rest of us acting as his posse, sent him to the shades, shades of hell, maybe Will and Shep will meet there. Kind of some kind of justice when you think a minute. That was long ago and Ben’s wife, Miss Clara, you know Will’s schoolmarm daughter, told me one time when she was helping me with inventory that Ben had told her one night when he had been unjustly accused of being an active barn-burner that Ben’s father, Shep, just up and left, maybe with a woman, maybe with just a jug of fuel, never to return leaving a wife and seven kids to be cared for. That won’t add anything to your story and I and every other person in town who either knew, or was there when they shot him down like a rabid dog will deny that story was true. So just know that maybe longing for his long lost old man or something like that, you with your book-learning may know what ailed him better than I do, was part of what made Ben tick, made him hungry to get out from the rushes.”
Johnny told Jefferson that he would not betray a confidence and that he, Johnny had a feeling that Ben’s rise had a lot more to do with him being a chip off of old Will Varner’s block, a ruthless wheeler-dealer and cutthroat artist than any misanthropic gasoline genes his old man left him.
Jefferson continued, “You know it was Jody Varner, Will’s legitimate son and ne’er do well who kept Ben in Frenchman’s Bend, kept a known barn-burner known far and wide by anybody paying attention from across the county on our doorsteps. Will had been away in Jackson the first time they found cancer in his bloated festered body and Jody had been left in charge when Ben came walking up to the door looking for a place to work. Smartass Jody figured the guy looked like he was from hunger, looked like a million other drifters when it came right down to it and offered him a shack as a tenant farmer for the Varner estates. Ben accepted although he probably already had a good idea that this Jody was a light-weight, maybe a mommy’s boy from the look of it all dressed up like a sportsman and displacing him would be merely a matter of time and circumstances. When the old man, when Will got home, home amid all this damn fanfare like he was the Pharaoh back in Egypt times he blew his top at Jody. Made him feel about two inches tall in front of his wife, this lustrous Eula who I will talk about more later and his big sister Clara, you know the schoolmarm, the local ice queen if you wanted to know the truth back then.”
“But I will say this for Will, a contract’s a contract even if Jody and Ben only shook on it and he let Ben stay on after he sized him up. Maybe that sizing up time is what made him think about advancing Ben’s future. The whole thing got a little mixed up probably because Will was flying by the seat of his pants. See that cancer business, that dying business when it came right down to it since that cancer eventually did get him scared Will silly. Got him suddenly looking for heirs, grandkids who would keep the Varner name going to infinity in Mississippi and maybe beyond you never know with these wheeler –dealer types. So Clara not being married and with no grands kids in the background he was placing his bet, maybe a series of bets, on this Ben Quick. You might ask about Jody at this point. Jody and that hot little number of a wife of his, that Eula who had the sweetest walk this side of the Mississippi if you know what I mean.” Baker insinuated with the beginning of a big ass leer like guys get when their thoughts turn to luscious little pieces of the Sunflower state, maybe anywhere, any state.
Putting that leer aside when Johnny formally failed to recognize lecherous look Baker continued, “One day she just showed up with Jody after he had gone to Jackson on some family business and he told the old man that he/they had gotten married. The old man for a while was tickled pink, was expecting to see those grandchildren and his legacy pushed forward. But I guess Jody for all his sexual appetites and playboy manners was shooting blanks, had no spunk, maybe really was a mommy’s boy in all departments although it would not have suited Will Varner to have his boy called a “sissy,” maybe be light on his feet and so nobody called him anything but Will Varner’s boy to his face or behind his back. But you can see where a young blue-eyed stud like Ben Quick, barn-burner pedigree or not, came prancing around that Will started to get ideas, started planning something.”
“Hey, I said I would mention Eula and I will now. Like I said that young Jody Varner picked her up out of some whorehouse or something on one of his sprees to Jackson, maybe I have it wrong and it was New Orleans. Get this though they were for public consumption they were prancing her around as a product of Miss Farmer’s Boarding School over in Vicksburg. Everybody who got one look at her, one watch through of that divine ass walk knew she hadn’t been within ten miles of a boarding school except maybe to give the boys a treat or two. For a while things were okay, Jody and Eula I heard spent most of their time up in their bedroom. Will was pleased as punch assuming that they were sweating on the satin sheets, on his satin sheets, enough to produce that first grandson Will forever dreamed of to insure what he called his immortality. I wish I could convey the way he dragged that word out like it was a feast day celebration. But I guess Jody was shooting blanks because after a while Eula never produced the bump associated with child production. That is when the young boys started showing up in the heat of the night calling her name and driving Jody to distraction. Before long word started seeping around, hell I learned about it from my son who claimed he had been one of her victims, that Eula was taking the youngsters out back after Jody went to bed and showing them what was what. “Playing the flute” my son said she called it so you know she was well-versed in all the sexual arts probably did do some time in a finishing school, some high-end whorehouse. Will found out about it from the guys hanging around the porch of the Varner General Store but by then he had given up on Jody’s prowess to produce an heir, had always thought that his late wife Emma had turned Jody into a mommy’s boy anyway, and had moved on in his planning to Miss Clara, to his ice cold but smoldering inside daughter to grab some young stud and do his magical work for him.
“Of course getting an ice queen off her high moral and idealistic horse long enough to take the measure of a man, to take what a man was built to give, was no simply chore, especially since for some reason she had since high school lammed onto Alan, Alan Winter, the son of what Will always laughing called one of the “decayed gentry” family without a pot to piss in who had been living off parsimony since Grant came through on his way to Vicksburg town and some Winter freed all his slaves shaking in his boots that he would be executed by the Yankees if he didn’t. So the story went. Will had this Alan figured as more than just a mommy’s boy, had him figured as “light on his feet,” a fairy and that Miss Clara, Sister his pet name for her was wasting her time pursuing a guy who probably was sneaking off to New Orleans to see what the young studs were up to when they came into port off the ships and freighters.
“Then almost out of the blue, almost like manna from heaven tainted, threadbare, bedraggled Ben Quick came waltzing down the road after having been thrown out of more towns in the county than you could shake a stick at. Sometimes for just lighting a cigarettes if the town fathers were a bit high strung and nervous. But Will saw something, correctly saw something in Ben like himself. A young man from hunger.”
Johnny knew from his own observations around that time what those hungers meant to a lot of young men freshly back from the war, from World War II, after they had had their paths altered for a while, or twisted a bit. At just that moment he wished that he could converse with the “ghost” of William who could tell him what it was like for guys like Will Varner to come out of the mud and slime sometime after the First World War and stake claim to whatever they could stake claim to. Then he might get a handle on what Will had seen in Ben’s steely-blue eyes. Maybe it was something in the genes and he could then just sit at William’s feet and get the lowdown on Will and transfer those qualities to Ben. What he sensed of Ben from Jefferson’s description of the rise of one Ben Quick in the local scene was that whatever hurts he had received from knowing what his father was, from being a barn-burner’s son, and a fair one himself that what really drove him was the fact that he was a lot smarter, street smarter, than guys like Jody, or that faggot Alan whom he had to turn Miss Clara against if he was to make his way in the world. If he was to consume any of that unspent energy he had powerfully stored to make something of himself.
Not having William around and depending on what Baker could tell him he was able to piece together what a new son of the South, a new Mississippi boy looking to make good, could do. Of course this New South, this new Mississippi was all about white Mississippi boys, blacks of any persuasion did not count for jack, were hoers and carriers under the strict precepts of Mister James Crow and nothing more, as William would say, need be said about those who were in the shadows, what didn’t count except to be of no account.
Jefferson picked up the thread of the conversation, “It was not long after Jody contracted for Ben’s tenancy that Will and Ben had had their conversation and the next thing anybody knew Ben was in turn selling untamed horses for the old man to his neighbors and had been brought into the general store to show what contempt Will had had for Jody since Jody had assumed he was the king of the store. It was around this time as well that rumors began to spread that Eula was going by the store more frequently when Jody was travelling to get goods and she was teaching Ben how to “play the flute” as they say (as if he needed any such instruction). Rumors or not, true or not, Ben knew, Will knew, as well, that some misbegotten dalliance with Eula was not going to go anywhere not matter how sweaty she got those sheets. So Ben took dead aim at Miss Clara.
“Like I said this Miss Clara while pleasant enough to talk to as long as you were not interested in grabbing some hay with her was a serious ice queen, didn’t want to get involved with any of the local studs who would have been glad to give her tumble if only to spite Will for some grievance done to them by him. She only had eyes for this Alan, this mommy’s boy and so Ben had his work cut out for him. Those steely-blue eyes, muscular body and wavy hair wouldn’t be enough against Miss Clara’s expectations. At least that was what the speculation was after Ben Quick had foolishly spent his whole month’s pay in order to have a Miss Clara-prepared luncheon at the Sunday church social. He had outbid that sissy Alan and got to have that dainty lunch. Although just that moment she was fuming since she had wanted and expected Alan to be her lunch partner.
“Something, nobody is quite sure what, but something happened between Ben and Miss Clara when they went off by themselves to have the contents of that expensive luncheon basket. All anybody had heard was the pair in loud angry indecipherable shouting, then silence, then more. Somebody said it was all about Ben swearing that he was going to have Miss Clara no matter what, pursue her to the end times and her blowing his talk off as hot air. Alan, ever the gallant as good manners amount the decayed gentry dictated, went to fetch Miss Clara back from the clutches of this low-life. A short time later Miss Clara appeared. Alone. Ever after that nobody any longer saw Miss Clara together. A couple of months later though I noticed that Miss Clara was coming around the store more often to talk to, but mainly to stare, at Ben Quick. I heard that one night after I had gone home for the evening and Ben had shut up the store that Ben and Miss Clara had gone in that back room for a quick round of love-making.
“Whether that was true or not, about six months later Ben and Miss Clara were married right in the main hall of the Varner mansion with half the town in attendance. What a time, what a time. About a year later the first of the five Quick boys arrived. Shortly after the arrival of that last boy Will’s cancer did him in and ended one chapter of the Varner story. I still can’t believe that a damn barn-burner grabbed whatever there was to grab around these parts and now nobody does anything but pay hat homage to Benjamin Quick, owner of half of Frenchman’s Bend. Damn.”