I picked up a copy of John Faulkner’s book, My Brother Bill, from Beckham’s Bookshop in New Orleans last year. Having just finished it, I can say it is a profoundly likable, charming, and enjoyable book. If you are a William Faulkner fan, you will find it insightful and interesting as well.
The book is a simple (that’s not an insult), accessible, and fairly-straight forward account of William Faulkner as told by his little brother John, who died in 1963, one year after his older brother. John Faulkner had an amazing memory and the reader will no doubt be touched by his affectionate anecdotal remembrances. John tells numerous stories of the Faulkner boys (there were three – the youngest, Dean, would later die after a student pilot, who he was training in William’s plane, crashed) and their growing up years in Oxford, Mississippi. Being the youngest of three myself, I found these brotherly remembrances quite touching. They were, in short, normal mischievous boys growing up in the deep South in the early 1900’s. William was always the leader, and John looked up to him with obvious and understandable esteem and respect.
John tells of how William (and John as well) became writers and how fame did and did not change William. A fierce devotion to Oxford remained throughout their lives, even though the good people of Oxford struggled at times to understand the occasionally eccentric William. Even so, John paints a picture of his brother as being unfailingly kind to those in need, an independent thinker, a brilliant writer and thinker, and a true friend to him.
There are intriguing anecdotes throughout the book. To name a few: William’s father did not like the novel Sanctuary (the first book that made him famous) and tried to have it suppressed until their mother told him to let him be. They were occasional Sunday School churchgoers but were never really religious. Their father attended for a while, but only because the Scopes Monkey Trial and the prospect of evolution scared him into it. That did not last long. John reveals that the family, including himself, was largely irritated by William’s integrationist phase, but that his brother had his own mind and did not care if people disagreed with him. (John strikes me as having been a good man but a fairly typical Southerner for the time regarding race.) He reveals that people occasionally thought William was a communist, but that he was not. He says that William did give $50 once to the lone Communist in Oxford simply because he felt sorry for him and his underdog position. He further reveals that his brother could run through money like nobody else and that the money largely came through his periodic stints writing for Hollywood. Along the way, John reveals a great deal about life in early-twentieth-century Mississippi.
If you enjoy memoirs and Southern history, you will appreciate this book. If you appreciate William Faulkner and his writings, you will really enjoy it! Highly recommended.