Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766
Pylon was William Faulkner’s eighth novel; he wrote it at the height of his powers, just before Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and not long after Light in August (1932). The novel is, above all, about flying and the motivation of those who fly. The “pylon” of the title is the tower or steel post around which a pilot must turn as he competes in a race at an air fair. The term figures prominently in the jargon of competing pilots; they “turn pylons” with their planes on each lap—they “take that pylon” and try to “fly the best pylon.” Because of its subject matter, the novel is less well known than other novels Faulkner wrote during this period, yet it would be a mistake to think that it is “just about flying”; many of the themes closest to Faulkner’s heart receive full, complex treatment in this neglected novel. Pylon is also one of Faulkner’s most exciting books, set near and in New Orleans during the week of Mardi Gras.
The plot of the novel can be summarized quite simply: A flying team composed of a pilot, a “jumper,” or parachutist, and a mechanic, accompanied by a woman and her son, are desperately short of money and hope to win at least one of the purses at an air show. They live only on their winnings, which means that often they have no place to stay, little to eat, and no money for transportation within a city. They resemble circus performers, and some of the themes in the book are remarkably close to those of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Naked Night (1953). Although the book is about the “romance” of flying, the hard physical conditions of the performers are kept firmly in the foreground. Onlookers, newspaper reporters, and members of the audience speculate on their motivation: Do they fly for money or for another reason? Are they “human” and “like us” (or a Holy Family)? If one supposes that they do not do it for money, he quickly learns that they are driven by material needs. At the same time, money cannot account for their motivation. The exploration of this conflict is central to the book. It throws considerable light on Faulkner’s theme of “survival,” explored in other novels and referred to in his Nobel Prize address; as Pylon reveals, this survival is never a purely materialistic necessity but is balanced against ideals and other claims, often extremely irrational. The book also develops Faulkner’s concept of psychological necessity, that men and women must do what they are driven to do by their most profound inner motivations. This is explored through solid, complex characters who differ widely from one another and who come from a very broad variety of social strata.
One of the strangest, most unexpected relationships in the book gradually develops as it proceeds. The reporter who covers the air show becomes fascinated by Roger Shumann’s flying team; he makes their acquaintance and tries to help them. This desire appears to be completely altruistic, with no self-interest. He becomes increasingly involved in the action, and, inadvertently, it is he who is responsible for the team’s destruction. He devises a scheme that will permit them to buy a new, more powerful plane which will win the final trophy race that has the biggest purse. This, he thinks, will solve their financial problems once and for all. The reporter is partly in love with the female member of the team, LaVerne, but he is equally concerned about the welfare of the child and the team as a whole. His intention is like that of Gregers Werle in Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (1884), the busybody who tries to do good but ends up creating only destruction—this is what George Bernard Shaw called “the quintessence of Ibsenism,” and Faulkner’s treatment of the theme in Pylon is masterful.
The powerful plane which the reporter contrives to buy has several defects; the reporter learns about them at an early stage and so does Shumann, but they persevere in their plan, caught up in the desire to win. A safety expert refuses to certify the plane, but they persuade other authorities to overrule him. It becomes increasingly clear that the plane has serious flaws—Faulkner beautifully handles the hurried, panicky attempts of the flying team to compensate for them and ignore their seriousness. During the final, tense race, the plane does not perform and comes apart in the air; the pilot is killed in a lake. At the end of the novel, the group disbands.
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