The next day Horace (who is separated from his wife Belle and his step-daughter Little Belle) is with his respectable family in Jefferson discussing his widowed sister's new toy boy, Gowan Stevens, who learnt to drink at college and thinks that made him a gentleman.
Now the main action starts. Gowan meets Temple Drake, a young college girl, who is playing hookey, and they drive off but Gowan is drinking and he crashes the car. They are taken to Lee the bootlegger's house. And this starts a strange, dream-like (nightmare-like) sequence in which Temple, terrified by the threat that these people represent (Tommy the negro, the psychotic Popeye, Lee, even Lee's blind old dad) runs around from one place to the next but never actually does what Lee's woman advises her to, which is to run away from the house and keep running. Gowan gets drunker, has a fight with Lee's man Van, spends the night asleep and in the morning walks off, finds a town, arranges for a car to collect Temple, and then keeps moving, ashamed of himself but unable to return. Then Popeye shoots Tommy to get to Temple and Temple screams "Something is happening to me!" It is only much later that we discover precisely what.
Horace is now defending Lee who is accused of Tommy's murder. At the same time Horace is looking after Lee's wife but his sister refuses to let him look after her in the house they jointly own so he puts her into a hotel until she is run out of that by the church-going ladies of the town who are spreading rumours that Horace is sleeping with Lee's wife; the woman and her baby take refuge in the prison where Lee refuses to tell anyone about Popeye because Lee is scared that Popeye will seek him out and kill him. Feeling is running against Lee. Horace quotes the local preacher as suggesting "that Goodwin and his wife should both be burned as a sole example to that child; the child to be reared and taught the English language for the sole end of it being taught that it was begot in sin by two people who suffered by fire for having begot it." This is a grisly breadcrumb.
Meanwhile Popeye has taken Temple, who is bleeding heavily, to a brothel in Memphis (where there is "a line of office buildings terraced sharply against the sunfilled sky") where the madam, Miss Reba, moving "heavily from thigh to thigh", fat and short of breath, with two little pet dogs who know to be sacred of her when she returns from the cemetery where her man is buried (a wonderful character; she says that "you have to be born for this [prostitution] like you have to be born to be a butcher or a barber, I guess. Wouldn't anybody be either of them just for money or fun".) arranges for a doctor to help with the blood still coming from Temple's loins.
Suddenly, almost exactly half way through the book, we have a comic interlude. Two young lads, innocents, impoverished freshmen, arrive in Memphis and take lodgings at Miss Reba's brothel, thinking that it is a hotel. When they visit a brothel, one complaining that the experience costs three dollars and "ain't nothing worth three dollars you cain't tote off with you") elsewhere they have to sneak back in to their 'hotel' where all the ladies are married in case the proprietress discovers they have been naughty and throws them out! These lads are the reason that their uncle, a wonderfully venal state senator who dispenses cheap cigars to patronise poor people (they see right through him; they distrust him and dislike him), discovers the whereabouts of Temple, selling the information to Horace (and presumably elsewhere as well). When Horace finds her she tells him what happened although it is written to keep the reader guessing about the exact details: "It made a kind of plopping sound, like blowing a little rubber tube wrong-side outward. ... I could feel the jerking going on in my knickers ahead of his hand..."
The twist comes in the courtroom and we discover exactly what happened to Temple in the subsequent lynching.
This is a fabulous book.
The plot is gripping, starting tense, becoming tenser, and the aftermath playing out in detail, with that wonderful comic interlude at almost exactly half way through.
The characters are perfect. It is only right at the end that we understand what has crippled Popeye's moral senses; we can pity even this personification of evil. Temple is a victim who, to some extent, colludes in her own victimhood, but at the same time she can be lustful and vengeful and cruel; she can be wicked but she is destroyed by what happens to her. Miss Reba is a brilliant madame with a wonderful love hate relationship with her dogs. And Senator Snopes is a perfect cameo.
There are some brilliant lines, including:
- Perhaps it is on the instant that we realise, admit, that there is a logical pattern to evil, that we die.
- Time's not such a bad thing after all. Use it right, and you can stretch anything out, like a rubber band, until it busts somewhere, and there you are, with all tragedy and despair in two little knots between thumb and finger of each hand.
- The smoke-colored twilight emerged in slow puffs like signal smoke from a blanket.
- People don't break the law just for a holiday
- God is foolish at times, but at least He's a gentleman [says the lawyer but the ex-prostitute replies] I always thought of Him as a man
- It does last ... Spring does. You'd almost think there was some purpose to it.
- Night is hard on old people.
- like a thin coating of tortured Tchaikovsky on a slice of stale bread
But the power of this book comes from the portrayal of society. The respectable people condemn the criminal underclass while at the same time using them. But it is when the two societies meet that tragedy occurs.
Stunning. July 2016; 219 pages