Soldiers’ Pay is the first novel that Faulkner published. It isn’t necessarily the first he wrote—there is uncertainty there—but it is unquestionably among his earliest novel-length works. His most famous novels—the Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August—would emerge in a flurry of astonishing literary fecundity a few years down the road. Soldiers’ Pay contains the seeds of these works, and if it is not quite at their level, it is nevertheless an impressive debut.
The story centers around Donald Mahon, a pilot in the First World War who was shot down and grievously wounded. While the story involves Mahon’s journey home and the reception he receives when he gets there, his character is less the nucleus of the novel than a hollow core around which the other characters orbit. Blind, weakened, and largely mute, he acts as a mirror, reflecting the wants and intentions of those around him.
The most prominent of these characters are Joe Gilligan and Margaret Powers, a solider-in-training who never saw combat and a war widow, who take Donald under their wing and shepherd him home. When her arrives, he is greeted with a mixture of joy and horror by his fiance, Cecily Saunders, who feels an obligation to marry him despite her disgust at his appearance, and is at once dismayed by this prospect and attracted by its romantic implications.
The prose is more straightforward than what might be thought as “Faulknerian,” as the more experimental aspects of his writing are used only sparingly. However, hints of the talent more fully unearthed in later works peek periodically through the topsoil. One lyrical passage struck me in particular: “an overcast sky, and earth dissolving monotonously into a gray mist, grayly. Occasional trees and houses marching through it; and towns like bubbles of ghostly sound beaded on a steel wire.”
Soldiers’ Pay is a novel of a developing author, but given who he developed into, it is still well worth reading.