Abscond, Abscond!

  • By Rafael Alvarez
  • March 26, 2018

Pilfering treasures from Mister Faulkner’s house

Abscond, Abscond!

“There ain’t no devil, it’s just God when he’s drunk…”

– Tom Waits

Oxford, Mississippi. The curator said that, to his knowledge, only one item had ever been poached here at Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in the seat of Lafayette County.

I wondered if he knew of the small crime I’d committed here 30 years ago — the theft of an oak seedling to bring back to Crabtown, USA, in honor of the 1949 Nobel Laureate who wrote The Sound and the Fury, among other classics.

That heist was committed on a backyard stretch of the estate’s many acres over the summer of ’88 with longtime accomplice and fellow blues pilgrim Tyrone Crawley, who accompanied me on this jubilee return.

“Just one thing’s been taken,” said William D. Griffith, chatting while welcoming visitors to the mid-19th-century Greek Revival house Faulkner bought in 1930, the year he published As I Lay Dying.

I kept my mouth shut and kept listening.

“We’ve had quite a lot of [famous] visitors over the years,” said Griffith, rattling off Stephen King, Holly Hunter, and Oliver Sacks. Fellow Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz (1980) had also paid his respects.

“A few years ago,” said Griffith, “Tom Waits came with his wife, Kathleen.”

“Did Waits sign the guestbook?” I asked, larceny in mind and hand.

“Yeah,” said Griffith. “And somebody ripped out the page and took it.”

The thieving lowlife beat me to it!


Along with a fresh notebook, three black-and-white disposable cameras, and a copy of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, I brought with me to Mississippi a 1989 copy of National Geographic. It featured a cover story by hometown boy Willie Morris (Yazoo City) about hometown boy Faulkner, who, in his fiction, transformed Oxford into a town he called Jefferson.

In the story, Morris spins a tale about heavy-hitters signing the Rowan Oak guestbook.

Speaking of the general sophistication of visitors to the Faulkner House (ha!), Morris wrote of a man who had discovered the novels of “Mr. Bill” via a lecture by the South American writer Mario Vargas Llosa, awarded the Nobel in 2010.

“The Dutchman learned that Faulkner was Vargas Llosa’s favorite writer, so he came to Oxford,” wrote Morris. “He went to…Rowan Oak and signed the register. He noticed the name directly above his — Mario Vargas Llosa. And there was Vargas Llosa in the next room.”

As much as I admire Vargas Llosa — buying his new novel, The Neighborhood, at Square Books the same day I visited Rowan Oak — I adore Tom Waits. Given the choice of pilfering the signature of the Peruvian master or the eccentric American who composed “Innocent When You Dream,” I’d have to go with Tom.

Not that I have either. Nor can I sit in the shade of a 30-year-old white oak with Mississippi roots deep in the soil of Baltimore while re-reading Absalom, Absalom!

A week after bringing the seedling back in a milk-carton and planting it by the fence, some neighbor kid ripped it out by the roots while searching for a ball that had been hit into our yard.


Rafael Alvarez is the author of the story collection Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown. He can be reached via [email protected].

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