Ever since Wordsworth wrote “The Idiot Boy,” a long poem about Betty Foy and her mentally handicapped son, the developmentally disabled have played the part of romantic hero in literature—most powerfully Faulkner’s Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury.
Into this tradition steps Jayne Anne Phillips, who burst onto the literary scene as a precocious twenty-six-year-old in 1979 with Black Tickets, a collection of mildly shocking stories about the sexually deranged, criminally depraved, and daringly marginalized in her native West Virginia and other parts of the South. In Lark and Termite, her sixth work of fiction and first novel in nearly a decade, she focuses on a nine-year-old named Termite who is “minimally hydrocephalic.” His condition, sometimes called water on the brain, leads to an enlarged skull and mental and physical setbacks. In Termite’s case, he is unable to walk, talk, or care for himself. His older sister, Lark, seventeen, is his caregiver. Their mother, Lola, killed herself shortly after Termite’s birth. Their aunt, Noreen, whom they call Nonie, is twice divorced and has raised them. She is responsible, Lark explains, for her brother’s curious name: “His forehead was real broad and he had blond curls and those blue eyes that move more than normal, like he’s watching something we don’t see. He was so small for his age that Nonie called him a mite, then Termite, because even then he moved his fingers, feeling the air. I think he’s in himself like a termite’s in a wall.”
This is familiar ground for Phillips: The predominant setting is small-town West Virginia. The socioeconomic stratum is lower class. Graphic sexual encounters tend toward the disturbing or violent. The roots of brutality are exposed in lyric and dreamlike prose. Familial ambivalences—particularly between mothers, sisters, daughters, and auntseddy and seethe. And as in Machine Dreams (1984), Phillips’s depiction of the Vietnam era, war is a “bloody mistake born of inept confusion.”
The conflict here is the Korean War. We learn of it through the eyes of Termite’s father, army corporal Robert Leavitt, a peacetime enlistee who finds himself in Korea when the North invades in June 1950. He is present when Americans massacre South Korean refugees at No Gun Ri in late July. The basis for Phillips’s fictionalized account is a 1999 Pulitzer Prize–winning Associated Press story detailing the incidentcivilians hiding below a railway bridge were machine-gunned—which led to a Pentagon investigation that left key questions unanswered.
Apportioning moral responsibility for American conduct holds little interest for Phillips. Instead, she seeks to reveal connections between the killing in Korea and Termite’s highly poeticized interior life nine years later. One strategy she uses is placing Termite near a railroad tunnel and riverbank in Winfield, West Virginia, at various points in the 1959 portions of the narrative. Somehow his imagination gains access to the South Korean refugees hiding from American jets in No Gun Ri’s infamous tunnel: “The roar of the water is a train pouring through the dark and the picture inside him opens wide. He sees inside the roar to where the bodies are sleeping and waiting to move. So many bodies, tangled in one another, barely stirred. They want to move, lifted, turning, but they can’t speak or see. One shape stands and opens its shining hands and the roaring light goes white. The pounding starts, pounding and pounding until the picture blurs and stops.”
Phillips also places a girl about Lark’s age and her brother, a boy with blue eyes—the same color as Termite’s—in the Korean tunnel with Leavitt. “The uneven blue of his pupils is impenetrable, depthless and cloudy, but the blue seems quietly, deeply lit,” Phillips writes of the Korean boy. “The blue never wavers. What does he see behind it. Shadows. Sounds.” At one point, Leavitt speculates about whether the boy is a paksu, Korean for “male shaman”: “He has a blind, hyperalert focus and awareness. The boy only waits, as though Leavitt will know what he knows, hear what he hears, inside the inability to move or do. To be nothing that way, Leavitt thinks, this way, to be held and carried, placed or taken, a bright awareness moved here or there like a fire in a cup.”
Perhaps we are to take these boys as interchangeable—a way of emphasizing that all humans beings, whether Korean or American, whether healthy or disabled, possess immutable value. In the book’s late pages, this begins to seem likely, as Leavitt addresses his newborn son thousands of miles away: “Look inside, he tells his son, inside is where you really are. He wants to lift his baby away from this beautiful deadly world. The planes always come, he wants to say, like planets on rotation, a timed bloodletting with different excuses. Part of a long music.”
Phillips’s insights about war owe a debt to Faulkner—indeed, one of her three epigraphs is from The Sound and the Fury: “Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.” This evocation of war’s universality may help explain why Phillips would choose to write about the fifty-year-old Korean War even though the United States is presently in the midst of one of its longest wars, as well as a floundering occupation of Afghanistan. Though there is no obligation to use contemporary subject matter—Denis Johnson’s National Book Award winner Tree of Smoke is proof enough—there remains something unsettling about a writer once so admired for her originality and edginess taking refuge in the ’50s.
Lark and Termite’s parallels with The Sound and the Fury are remarkable. Both novels employ four points of view and are sometimes told in stream of consciousness. In Faulkner, there is an unidentified narrator who often speaks for Dilsey, the Compson family’s black maid; as well as Jason, the cold-hearted brother; Quentin, the Harvard-educated brother who kills himself; and Benjy, the mentally disabled brother who “know lot more than folks thinks.” In Phillips, there are Leavitt, Lark, Nonie, and Termite. (Like Quentin, Termite’s mother kills herself.) The importance of blue eyes—the celestial connotations play out in both tales—is marked. Benjy, Termite, and the shamanistic Korean boy all have blue eyes, it’s repeatedly noted. And in Faulkner’s 1925 short story “The Kingdom of God,” the impaired young man who is the model for Benjy has eyes “clear and blue as cornflowers.”
In the story, and in The Sound and the Fury, able-bodied characters constantly question the kindness of the caretakers of the impaired. “Dam’f I see why you lug him around when they’s good homes for his kind everywheres,” says the bootlegger in “The Kingdom of God.” Dilsey’s daughter quarrels with her for bringing Benjy to church on Easter Sunday. The owner of the snooty restaurant where Nonie works castigates Lark for bringing the boy to the greasy spoon.
Also like Benjy, Termite has no sense of time. Faulkner once told an audience at the University of Virginia that for Benjy, “what happened to him ten years ago was just yesterday.” The conflation of time in the Korean and West Virginian tunnels, set nine years apart, is similar. The loss of virginity of Caddy, Benjy’s sister, and Caddy’s love for Benjy find echoes in Lark and Termite as well. Lark’s tender care for Termite suffuses Phillips’s novel. And Termite has special knowledge of her the other characters lack. He recalls, without judgment or disdain, Lark’s sexual initiation at age eleven with a neighbor boy.
Phillips reinvigorates and transforms the Faulknerian infrastructure. Female voices, not the chorus of brothers Jason and Quentin, dominate in Lark and Termite. The relationship between Nonie and her promiscuous, more beautiful sister is exquisitely explored. At one point, for example, Nonie realizes that Termite “seemed the damaged mystery of everything I’d never finished with Lola, and the sadness of all that had gone wrong for her.” The importance of the women who are with Leavitt at No Gun Ri is vivid: One shoots herself and mistakenly triggers an American blitz; her relative, a young girl, saves Leavitt from the gunfire, pulling him away as the bullets miss him by inches. While Faulkner chronicled the decay of the South through its men, Phillips adumbrates the nobility of Appalachia, of Korean refugees, of the least of us, by taking us into the “shaky territory” of women and the “picture inside the roar, a tunnel inside the tunnel.”
Lorraine Adams’s second novel, The Room and the Chair, will be published by Knopf next year.