Faubus: the Life and Time of an American Prodigal (1997), by Roy Reed

Orval Faubus was governor of Arkansas from 1955 to 1967. These days, he’s chiefly remembered as the governor who did everything he could to block the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. But Reed (1930-2017), who worked as a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette and the New York Times, offers up a full account of the man, as complicated as any of us.  

Faubus could honestly claim his hillbilly origins—a political asset in Arkansas. He grew up poor  on a farm in northwest Arkansas, near Fayetteville. Somewhat astoundingly from a contemporary perspective, Faubus’s father, Sam, was not only a farmer, but also a Socialist. He belonged to a loose affiliation of Socialists in the early 20th Century which advocated for farmers’ rights in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. Orval himself briefly attended Commonwealth College, a left-wing enclave that sprang up down in the southern Ouachitas. Reed’s detailed account of the school, and Faubus’s activities there, are compelling.

Much later, in the 1950s when Orval stood for state office, he was accused of being a Communist. It would have been fair to call Faubus a liberal, and possibly because he was from the highlands, where few African-Americans lived, he showed no signs of racism. He campaigned to improve the lives of all poor people, and in his first administration, he managed to achieve better schools, more humane prisons, and improved treatment for the mentally ill.

So it’s ironic that he became a strident racist, but in the aftermath of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), white supremacists in Arkansas and many other Southern states grew rabid. Faubus, a lifelong Democrat, faced a formidable, segregationist candidate, and if he hoped to get re-elected, he had to take a segregationist stand. At first he tried to temporize, pointing out the real likelihood of violence if Central High School were integrated. Faubus knew all along that segregation was doomed. Still, before it was over, he was as mean-spirited a racist as George Wallace.

Faubus’s later terms fell into the pattern of cronyism and corruption that often plague long-lived political machines. To take one small example, state employees were forced to contribute to Faubus’s campaigns—and, in Arkansas, those came along every two years. Like Nixon, Faubus had his lists of enemies. Ominously, his Criminal Investigation Division (CID), operated as secret police, wiretapping, spying on, and harassing anyone with integrationist leanings. Faubus at the height of his power will remind the reader of Richard Nixon in his paranoia, and Donald Trump in his pettiness.

Faubus’s downfall was sudden. It seemed nobody really liked him, and his old friends deserted him. He fell heavily in debt to build an impractical house; he had an affair with a younger woman and his marriage broke up. His new wife, a close friend of the Eureka Springs quasi-Nazi, Gerald L.K. Smith, was a vicious, unstable woman, and that marriage failed, too. At one point, Faubus took a job as a bank teller, and he was briefly involved in the ill-fated theme park, Dogpatch USA.

Orval Faubus managed to crawl out of debt. He made other, futile attempts to run for governor. He wrote memoirs. He tried to make amends to Daisy Bates, Little Rock’s determined NAACP worker, and claimed to support Jesse Jackson for president.

None of this mattered. Faubus had become an obscure, rather pathetic figure, remembered only for obstructing the march of history.

The Outlaw Album (2011), by Daniel Woodrell

My dad ran a few sheep on a small farm south of Cabool, Missouri. Neighbor dogs ran together,  sometimes, chasing the sheep, and one big mutt led them. Dad, who’d grown up in Indiana where the rules of country life were somewhat different, shot the leader and dumped the body down an old dug well. In a day or so, the dog’s owner came calling—and he came more than once. I was five, and all I remember was that the man wore heavy boots and that he was very, very angry, but without the corpus delecti he couldn’t prove my dad had shot the dog.

Almost everybody likes dogs, but for men back in the hills, dogs can matter more than the wife and kids.

That’s pretty much what Woodrell’s “The Echo of Neighborly Bones,” the first in his collection of twelve stories, is about. The narrator’s wife has a dog named Bitsy that kills guineas on the neighbor’s farm, and the neighbor, like my dad, is not from the Ozarks, but Minnesota. The neighbor shoots Bitsy and the narrator shoots the neighbor, then spends several days mutilating the body before he dumps it in the deep woods.

“Returning the River” works the same ground. It opens quite dramatically with a young man running across frozen furrows, and his almost-dead father trying to catch him, but then falling down, bruising his frail skin, breaking off his oxygen supply. This is because the young man has set fire to the new neighbor’s fine new house, which blocks a view of the river that the young man, the father, and generations before have revered. He’ll rebuild that house, the young man’s brother says. Yes, but Dad will be dead by then.

Woodrell is often compared to Faulkner, and in “The Horse in Our History,” a story evoking small towns from a hundred years ago, you can see why:

A Saturday in summer, the town square bunched with folks in for trading from the hills and hollers, hauling okra, tomatoes, chickens, goats, and alfalfa honey. Saturday crowds closed the streets around the square to traffic, and it became a huge veranda of massed amblers . . . Farmers in bib overalls with dirty seats, sporting dusted and crestfallen hats, raising pocket hankies already made stiff and angular with salt dried from sweat wiped during the hot wagon ride to town. In the shops and shade there were others, wearing creased town clothes, with the white hankies of gentlefolk folded to peak above breast pockets in a perfect suggestion of gentility and standing . . . The hardware store was busy all day, and the bench seats outside became heavy with squatting men who spit brown splotches toward the gutter. Boys and girls hefted baskets of produce, ate penny candy, and screamed, begged nickels so they could catch the cowboy matinee at the Avenue Theater.

Wow. I have the barest memory of this kind of scene, on the square at Ava, and it was almost gone even then. Woodrell catches it perfectly.

Another oddly-titled story, “Black Step,” is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. It features a shell-shocked Iraq War veteran who’s been in and out of treatment and can function again, but is so numbed by war he cannot feel. A woman visits him for sex and he tries his best, but his mind wanders. She wants to get married and he doesn’t know why. Word comes that he’s cleared to go to war again, and his mother tells him the woman who wants to marry him has been asking around how much he’d be worth dead. The story drops you into such a pit of hopelessness that it’s hard to take.

Faulkner was often pretty funny, and at first blush, Woodrell doesn’t seem to be. He glories in violence and his characters are all misfits whose triumphs, if they could be said to have any, are often perverse. Then I read, “Dream Spot,” about a married couple driving along, bickering, bickering, who encounter a hitchhiker—a young woman. The wife immediately accuses her husband of lust and infidelity and predicts he’ll run off with the girl. The husband denies it and finally stops the car, puts it in reverse, and aims it for the girl—not to pick her up but to hit her. The hitchhiker manages to dodge the car, which veers off the road and down into a gully. The man and wife “hung upside down, hidden from the road and doomed together.” The hitchhiker steals the woman’s purse and the man’s wallet. The man looks over at his wife as if to say, “You happy now?” And the woman, lips bleeding, almost smiles. Well, as a satire of marriage, that’s pretty funny.

Depressing, violent, dazzling, melodramatic, lush, funny, strangely-titled, lovely stuff.