Once (it was in Mississippi, in May, in the flood year 1927) there were two convicts.

Old Man by William Faulkner is a walloping tale of survival. During the great flood of 1927, a prison work gang is sent to repair the levee along the Mississippi border. Two convicts are selected to take a skiff and rescue several stranded people. One returns claiming that the other has died. But he hasn’t.

The second convict rescues a young pregnant woman from a tree then tries to get back to the prison farm. Unfortunately for him, the waves of floodwater rolling back and forth, up and down the Mississippi (the flooding was so bad that the river actually flowed north for several days) keep him from returning for well over a month.

During this month the convict and the woman make it over the river to Louisiana and then back again to Mississippi. They travel both north and south passing the work farm without noticing. They encounter boatloads of survivors trying to reach shelter and spend several weeks with a Cajun river-rat who lives in a house on stilts and teaches the convict to hunt alligators showing him the value of an honest wage earned before they too have to flee the flood waters. In the meantime, the woman’s baby is born in the stilted shack of the river-rat.

Through it all the convict wants nothing more than to return to the prison farm. There he has labor he enjoys, sunshine during the day, a warm bed at night, and three square meals. There he is also free of women who have given him nothing but grief throughout his life.

Old Man is a very straightforward, enjoyable story, atypical for William Faulkner. The narration is simple third person, no literary experimentation here, not like what you’ll find in books like The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner’s twisted southern sense of humor is in evidence aplenty. The convict’s repeatedly foiled attempts to get back into prison make up most of the story’s humor along with the woman’s refusal to leave him for any other rescuers. I found it strange that anyone would want to go back to a 1920’s Mississippi prison farm, but I’m going to assume that Faulkner knows more about this than I do. I was willing to play along for the sake of the story in any case.

There are a few very long passages, the kind Faulkner is famous for, sentences that run on for 100’s of words and paragraphs that go on for pages, but not too many of them. If you’ve been put off by that in the past, this might be a good volume of Faulkner for you. The long sections are certainly vivid writing, exciting stuff in my view, but there are only a comparative few of them, so they do not weigh down the story telling.

I read this book back in 2008 for two reading challenges: The Novella Challenge and the A-Z Reading Challenge.  I used to do a lot of challenges; I think many of us did in 2008.  I remember finding quite a few books I really enjoyed in both The Novella Challenge and the A-Z Reading Challenge.   This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  I gave Old Man four out of five stars.  

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4 thoughts on “The Old Man by William Faulkner

  1. Except for As I Lay Dying, I’ve had a hard time warming up to Faulkner. The Old Man sounds like a good place to rediscover “Brother Will”.

    1. It’s really a straight-ahead story with very little “experimentation.” It’s quite funny in parts, too. I think it’s the perfect book for people who think they don’t or won’t like William Faulkner.

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