“The course of a river is almost always disapproved of by its source.”
—Jean Cocteau

There’s a story about the filming of The Big Sleep that ought to be true even if it isn’t. When Howard Hawks was supervising the final cut he realized he didn’t know who had killed the butler, so he summoned the screenwriter, William Faulkner, to find out. Faulkner’s response was HellifIknow. The two of them then called upon Raymond Chandler for the solution; the punch line is that Chandler didn’t know either.

Chilton Williamson’s The Homestead is among other things a tissue of conscious and deliberate literary allusions, to Faulkner, Hemingway, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O’Connor, Voltaire, Homer. . . . Its resemblance to the Raymond Chandler opus may, on the other hand, be inadvertent. Most apparently the novel is a what-if reprise of The Sound and the Fury (transplanted to Wyoming): what if Jason Compson went into exile, while Quentin and Caddy stayed home?

Sam Houston Walker, who tells about half of the story as a first-person narrator, is a crossbred Hemingway/ Faulkner protagonist. A professional big game hunter in Africa, he less resembles Nick Adams than the blustering, bragging Hemingway who appears in Green Hills of Africa. On the Faulkner side, he’s a reincarnation of Jason Compson, interested by his own account only in the cash value of his anticipated inheritance from the titular Homestead, not in its human meaning, and bitterly resentful of the gothic entanglements of the family he’s made a concerted effort to abandon on the other side of the globe. “A patrimony is like a father,” he cracks, “you only have one of each of them.”

Sam’s half of the tale is all about how his siblings entice him back into involvement with the family and the home place. Back home, his brother Jack has put Frank Joad, a trespassing oil surveyor, into a coma by the somewhat unlikely method of clobbering him with a cowboy boot, and is likely to go on trial for murder. His sister Clarice wires Sam to come back to superintend the crisis, and Sam, troubled by the thought of money being lost in an expensive legal struggle, consents.

The lines of conflict are simultaneously personal and political. In the latter department, Williamson has transferred the opposition of a traditionally-minded agrarian society to an encroaching industrial one, familiar from Southern literature, from a Southern to a Western context. The situation in and around Fontenelle, Wyoming, is a microcosmic vision of a certain kind of deterioration of contemporary American life. Town and countryside are overrun with unemployed South and Central American migrants. Along with other vicissitudes, the oil company has brought in drug trade. However, most of the local politicians are more than willing to sell out to the oil company for jobs and cash. The old guard, as represented by the Walker family, looks like losing. Sam’s grandfather, generally known as the Old Man, intransigently refuses to sell an easement across his property to the oil company, but in consequence a good part of The Homestead is now practically owned by the bank.

In the broadest terms, Sam shares the family’s suspicion and dislike of the technological society expanding its way. His trashing of New York City as he passes through on his way home from Africa is one of the nicest pieces of polemic in the book, culminating in a definition of “cosmopolitan culture” as “sheer anarchic willfulness superimposed upon the mania for total collective control.” However, he sneers at his family’s “xenophobia,” and if he shares the family passion for the land he does so with the utmost reluctance. The lengths to which Jack will go in apparent defense of The Homestead are understood by Sam as evidence of his brother’s insanity.

Jack Walker does duty as a second and secondary first-person narrator speaking in brief, cryptic passages that seem to blend the voices of Quentin and Benjy Compson and that represent some of the finest writing of what is on the whole a very beautifully written book. It’s Jack who seems willing to accept the moral inheritance that Sam rejects, to live as the scion of a pioneer aristocracy that stretches back to Captain Uncle Joe Walker, a legendary forebear who was a contemporary of Jim Bridger. With his own quirky determination he takes a definite stance against both the evil and the simple absurdity of modern life:

. . . and all i want to know now is that what it really comes down to anymore bashing white niggers in the head with a cowboy boot or getting shot into space with a peebag and a load of freezedry orangejuice because if it is and the world has got too civilized anymore for courage selfsacrifice and what used to be called honor i don’t care they can stick me in jail and throw away the key and i can be dead like captain uncle jo and all the other heroes then like jim bridger said it used to be a man could see forever in this country but anymore nobody wants to look any further than the end of his own nose.

If Sam is right to see a strong self-defeating quality in this attitude of Jack’s, Jack also seems to have a plausible case that Sam is, despite his ostentatious heroics in Africa, both a physical and a moral coward. His evidence for that idea is part of the novel’s extremely complicated subtext, to which all the characters constantly make cryptic allusions. The mystery element of the story—who done what and what for—involves the past as much as the present. In fact the Walker family closets are full to bursting with bones.

Home life on The Homestead is such a dismal affair that one understands why Sam prefers Africa. The Old Man rules the big house with a patriarchal authority. Grace, the mother of the three siblings, is an alcoholic prescription addict who spends most of her attention on darkly comical blithering about the various do-gooder causes she espouses. Her husband, the missing link in the Walker generations, was killed in a mysterious plane crash years before. Clarice plays the role of aging maiden, while Jack lives aloof in a trailer in the yard. There’s nothing too pleasant for Sam to come home to; rather, “I felt like the ‘cured’ explorer contemplating a return to the fever swamps of the upper Nile.”

Sam does his best to keep his distance from the family even while living in the house. He seems to see his brother only when Jack is riding bulls at the rodeo, and has only a little more contact with Clarice. He spends a lot of time drinking, conducts a strikingly sordid affair with Candy Fuller, his high-school girlfriend and the daughter of one of the Old Man’s most loathed political enemies, and makes an oafish pass at Karen MacPherson, who seems to be Jack’s girlfriend and who also appears to have once been married to the moribund Frank Joad. What’s left of his energy is devoted to trying to unravel the intricacies of the present-time plot and to influence the course of events by underhanded machinations and bribery.

There are always a disappointing few pages at the end of even the best Chandler novels where the characters stand around and recite explanations at each other. For a mystery writer, Chandler was strangely uninterested in the actual solution of the mystery. The mechanics of plot apparently bored him. His real interests were comparatively highbrow: landscape, tone, language, character. A similar problem occurs in the conclusion of The Homestead. The buried information comes belching out of the back-story in a rather perfunctory manner. The trouble between Jack and Sam has to do with a long-ago attempt to obstruct a nuclear waste train. The missing father didn’t die by accident—the plane crash was a suicide inspired by the discovery that Grace was unfaithful and Clarice is the child of another man. (Interestingly, both brothers take that to mean that Clarice is no longer their sister, as if their mother was not related to them by blood.) Out of ingredients such as these might be constructed either All the King’s Men or a few more episodes of Dallas. Considered solely from the standpoint of plotting. The Homestead falls somewhere between these two extremes.

As for the present-time plot, which ripples outward from the question of Jack’s and Frank Joad’s secret motive, too much of it simply fails to make sense. A lengthy subplot involving Jack’s lawyer, Chuck Richardson, and the involvement of his wayward wife in some obscurely drug-related murder, never gets an adequate explanation. At length it’s revealed that Jack’s animus against Frank Joad is partly inspired by the discovery that Clarice is having an affair with him, but the pretext given for her contracting this liaison does not seem completely plausible. The whole drug-traffic angle remains clouded in obscurity. Additionally, we never know who fired a lot of mysterious gunshots, what was behind a couple of mysterious collisions, who actually took those blackmail photos of Joad and Clarice. . . .

Maybe these are trivial objections; after all, no one really cares who killed the butler in The Big Sleep. But it’s unfortunate that this novel winds up in a snarl of inadequate plot resolution, since it deserves to be taken seriously for the moral and social issues it addresses. There are problems here too, but lesser ones, and perhaps they are intrinsic to the material. Although Jack Walker has all the best lines and is probably the book’s most admirable character, he gets comparatively little airtime, and ends up strangled by the strict limitations he has set for himself As a result, Sam Walker emerges as the dominant voice, and not a very attractive one, on balance. “I am,” he admits, “to every intent and purpose a child of my time,” which is to say, in the final analysis which Jack’s gnomic utterances help make, that he is the epitome of organized selfishness, unable and unwilling to look past the end of his own nose. It’s hard to respect someone who is so determined to turn himself into a Snopes, hard to believe that he can grow into a healthier version of his brother’s role in The Homestead, and particularly difficult, given his dedicated misogyny throughout the book, to conceive that he can form a viable connection with Karen MacPherson. If he does become our hero in the end it is only because we are stuck with him, as Lacey is stuck with George Posey at the end of Allen Tate’s The Fathers.

Perhaps The Fathers is the most suggestive of the many models The Homestead has taken for itself. Williamson seems to have seized on the same problem and moved it a century forward in time. At the moment when the old order is inevitably to be devoured, the refusal to compromise is nothing more than an honorable form of suicide. Yet in the terms of the passing order, the success of the survivor must appear to be contemptible— and it is not just a question of what terms to employ, but of the meaningful existence of any terms at all. The Fathers is a virtually flawless work, and The Homestead is not; however, it is a significant address to an important theme, and in many ways admirable, though probably not the best book its author will write. 


[The Homestead, by Chilton Williamson, Jr. (New York: Grove Weidenfeld) 288 pp., $18.95]