Monday, May 4, 2009

Go Down, Moses and Games of Property

My Peruvian friend Vilma got her American citizenship last week. I wanted to give her a book to celebrate, a very American book. What would be the most American book in the world? I thought of Go Down, Moses, my favorite book by Faulkner. It has everybody in it: Native Americans, African Americans and Hillbilly Americans.

I started re-reading it, and I realized that it’s also really, really confusing. (I ended up giving Vilma Huckleberry Finn instead.) It opens with Faulkner’s weird stream of consciousness style and a lot of omitted punctuation; then suddenly a fox is running through a kitchen with two old men and a bunch of dogs chasing it, and somebody named Tomey’s Turl has “broke out again.”

Oh yes, Tomey’s Turl: the son and grandson of old Carothers McCaslin, the patriarch of the McCaslin family. I thought I sort of remembered. Didn’t his grandmother drown herself when she discovered that the father of her own child, Tomey, had impregnated Tomey? I re-read all of Go Down, Moses, and indeed that is revealed near the end.

Go Down, Moses
is a much more complicated book than I realized when I read it for the first time about eight years ago. I had to re-read the first story, “Was,” three times before I figured out what was going on in the card game. It seems that Tomey’s Turl, despite being a slave, has managed to engineer all the events in the book, so that he can marry Tennie, his sweetheart who lives on a neighboring plantation. He seems powerless, and he hardly speaks at all, but he controls and out-wits his owners and half-brothers, Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy. To do this, he makes an alliance with a white woman, Sophonsiba, who also has matrimony in mind: she wants Uncle Buck to marry her. And eventually he does, in part because of the events that occur because of Tomey’s Turl’s “escape.”

The farcical “hunt” for Tomey’s Turl, and his pursuit of Tennie, and Sophonsiba’s pursuit of Buck, are all mirrored at the end of the book in the more solemnly told story of the pursuit of the bear, Old Ben, which ends in death for the bear and the fierce dog, Lion. In fact the theme of caging, escape, and pursuit recur throughout the several stories that make up Go Down, Moses. It suddenly occurred to me that other critics might have noticed this. I went to the library at the University of Houston, and found about ten books just about Go Down, Moses. The one that spoke most immediately to my interest in Tomey’s Turl and the pursuit theme is Games of Property, by Thadious Davis.

Games of Property is a dense, thoroughly researched exposition of antebellum property law, especially as it applied to the ownership of slaves. It turns out that property case law even began with a case about who owned a fox! Davis says that Faulkner was probably aware of this case, as he had lawyer friends. At any rate, she then shows how people found ways to find some freedom within the restrictive, cage-like laws of the slavery system, and that this realm of freedom was often a game: a card game, a hunt, even a dice game. The hunt for Tomey’s Turl was a game that he and Buck and Buddy had played many times before, and it was a kind of ritual. Buck even gave Tomey’s Turl a head start so that the chase would be more fun. At the end of the story, it seems that Tomey’s Turl may be manipulating the cards in a poker game so that Tennie will go home with him and Uncle Buck.

This complicated game playing goes on between the white and black people and between men and women throughout the novel. Relatively powerless people, black and female, use whatever power they can find to manipulate the white males who seem to hold all the power. Sometimes, as in “Was,” these games are successful. Davis says that games are arenas that are slightly outside the normal social order of law, but never entirely outside it. Law itself is a way of regulating the "game" of capitalism and property that is the constant backdrop to all human relations. But within that constricted, legally bound social space, even women and enslaved people find some freedom to enact their wills on the world.

There is a lot more to Go Down, Moses than the game/property theme: there are the themes about environmental destruction and the responsibility that a person has for the misdeeds of his ancestors. But both of these are related to the idea of property and games: land as property, the hunt on the land as a game, and the attempt to outwit personal karma as a kind of cosmic game.

Once I wrapped up a book for a child’s birthday, and when I presented it to him, and he opened it, he said, “Thanks, but I already have a book.” I laughed and said, “It’s ok to have more than one book.” But sometimes I think that Go Down, Moses is the only book I really need. I could read it over and over again and keep finding new things in it.


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