Saturday, May 2, 2009

Quote of the Day (William Faulkner, on the Kentucky Derby)

“Only a little over two minutes: one simultaneous metallic clash as the gates spring. Though you do not really know what it was you hear: whether it was that metallic crash, or the simultaneous thunder of the hooves in that first leap or the massed voices, the gasp, the exhalation--whatever it was, the clump of horses indistinguishable yet, like a brown wave dotted with the bright silks of the riders like chips flowing toward us along the rail until, approaching, we can begin to distinguish individuals, streaming past us now as individual horses--horses which (including the rider) once stood about eight feet tall and 10 feet long, now look like arrows twice that length and less than half that thickness, shooting past and bunching again as perspective diminishes, then becoming individual horses once more about the turn into the backstretch, streaming on, to bunch for the last time into the homestretch itself, then again individuals, individual horses, the individual horse, the Horse: 2:01 4/5 minutes."—William Faulkner, “Kentucky: May: Saturday,” Sports Illustrated, May 16, 1955

This past weekend, poking around in a library, I noticed, just before closing time, a sports anthology featuring this essay by Faulkner. It was too late to read it, but I decided I had to hunt it down. It reminded me of my first in-depth exposure to Faulkner, in college, through his short novel “Spotted Horses.”

It might surprise people used to the Southerner’s baroque style that “Spotted Horses” can be so funny. Our professor pointed out that, in Faulkner’s childhood, horsetrading was on about the same ethical level as used-car dealing would be today.

A fine, short gloss on Faulkner’s piece in particular—and the legendary Kentucky Derby in general--is provided by blogger Bob McClain’s post. (Incidentally, I’m bookmarking McClain’s blog, “At Large in Louisville”—and I advise you to do the same, as you’ll find some really good pieces, as I did, on sports, literature and music.)

You might also want to take a look at a fine retrospective by Eric Crawford of the Louisville Courier-Journal on the stories behind the great writers who came here to cover the grand event. Hunter S. Thompson and John Steinbeck are discussed, but for me, the real highlights were about Faulkner:

* He learned on the first day of his visit here that he’d just won the Pulitzer Prize (for A Fable);

* Upon being taken to the press box, the Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize winner wanted to meet only one other writer—Red Smith, naturally; and

* Characteristically, after dozing off amid the bucolic splendors of the area, Faulkner awoke, immediately aware that “There’s a distillery damn close to here!” (That sense was positively uncanny—sort of like Bill Clinton in the 1992 Presidential campaign, who consistently demonstrated an astonishing capacity to sniff out a McDonald’s within only one or two blocks of wherever he was in his seemingly endless road to the White House.)

By the way, while Faulkner’s article for the fledgling magazine—still more than nine years away from its first swimsuit issue and, of course, profitability—is considered a sports classic, he never got around to naming the winner of the great race. For the record, Swaps beat Nashua that year.

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