The Reivers

Faulkner’s final novel The Reivers, written in 1962, is something of an uncharacteristic masterpiece.

The narrator, Lucius Priest, is an old man recounting adventures from when he was an eleven-year-old boy, in 1905, just as automobiles first arrived in Jefferson, Mississippi. His grandfather, Boss Priest, who owns one of the few cars then in existence, goes by train to a distant funeral, leaving Lucius to enter into an unspoken pact with his grandfather’s driver (and distant relative), Boon Hogganbeck. They conspire to steal the car and take it to Memphis, Tennessee, where gambling, scams, and prostitution await. To “reive”, by the way, is to steal, hence the “reivers”.

It remain a powerful narrative and worthwhile read for several reasons:

  • It is a brilliant coming-of-age story, a bildungsroman, incisively examining the miracle of maturation and personal growth. The novel produces a man from a boy, like transmuting lead into gold, in a way that gives insight into life. The transformation contains all the fits and starts that a growing conscience exhibits as it encounters life’s complexities, and the lessons of code, conduct, and character that the young boy infers from circumstance somehow always exceed their proximate causes. In this way, it is a morally impressive novel. The mental forces that the narrator refers to as “Virtue” and “Non-virtue” appear early: Lucius knows, from the beginning, that with a single word he could command Boon to take him back home, and that not only would Boon obey, but he would be relieved. And yet he knows that he is too far gone for this, and must redeem himself some other way that lies in moving forward and not in retreat. The circumstances are specific, but the lessons learned are universal, and the clarity by which Faulkner renders the former into the latter contributes no small part to the power of this novel. The education is naturalistic; not by rote and certainly not by example, but by the mere exposure to the challenges of life itself, Lucius enters adulthood.
  • It is stylistically beautiful. It reads like a yarn, a rye-soaked conversation, meandering through generations. The narrator addresses the reader as a younger generation of the family, and thereby deepens the atmosphere. The device allows the narration to contrast the conditions of 1905 to the 1950s, when the story is being told. Yet to provide background the narrator also travels much further back in time. Especially in the beginning, it snakes through the nineteenth century as a prologue to the action, at a slow pace, filled with intriguing characters, often in such a way that one cannot quite make out where the stories are coming from or going to. The narrator hauls aboard every strand in sight which might later come in handy, yet through this discursiveness such life comes through as to keep the journey extremely enjoyable.
  • The characters are complex, sometimes enigmatic, and far from typecast. Beyond Lucius’ education and Boon’s mixed motivations, there’s the unexpected combination of folly and street wisdom in the wily Ned, as well as the mixed figures of Boss (the patriarchal grandfather) and Everbe (a partially-reformed prostitute). These are surprising characters, and their personalities are revealed not by their consistency but in moments of unpredictability, as when Everbe breaks down at Lucius’ defense of her, or the family’s treatment of Lucius’ outrageous disobedience in the conclusion. The possible exception to this is Otis, a deplorable nephew of one of the prostitutes, who acts as a foil to Lucius’ growing moral certitude.
  • It shows Faulkner’s versatility and narrative skill without resort to the virtuosity of his earlier work. Not that there’s anything wrong with it—As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury are themselves baroque masterpieces. But this novel impresses by showing his virtues in a completely different mode, without resort to his surfeit of stylistic devices, to stream-of-consciousness, or to his voluminous vocabulary. The language remains first-rate, with some astoundingly interesting colloquy; what surprises more is its simplicity, in part attributable to the youthful perspective of the protagonist. Faulkner retains all the emotional force of his earlier novels despite assuming an entirely different style.
  • It’s funny. I won’t spoil its multitude of entertainments but here’s a passage that I particularly liked:

Even if Ned (or somebody else concerned) asked him point-blank if I was with him Saturday night, it would be at least Monday by then, and I had already decided quick and hard not to think about Monday. You see, if only people didn’t refuse quick and hard to think about next Monday, Virtue wouldn’t have such a hard and thankless time of it.

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