The Reivers – William Faulkner

The list of William Faulkner books I own and have read, often multiple times, is long. I know I missed a few titles along the way, but certainly I would have claimed to have read all of the Faulkner essentials and then some. No one ever mentions The Reivers when listing Faulkner’s major worksdsc_0111, and it turns out I find that to be a shame. No, it’s not The Sound and the Fury, but this is not a work to be dismissed and unread. After all, isn’t it likely that even the worst work by a Nobel Prize winner has a good chance of being far better than the best book by an average writer? For my birthday my brother bought me a copy of The Reivers, published in 1962, a month before Faulkner’s death. A couple lines in the front jacket mirror my own conclusions, “The Reivers is, with no reservations whatsoever, one of the funniest books in our literature,” and, “But to those readers who have only sampled his work, The Reivers will be an especial delight.” Having believed I had read all of Faulkner’s good books, The Reivers truly was a wonderful surprise.

Turns out The Reivers is well loved and highly regarded by fans of Faulkner. For readers new to Faulkner, it may be a great place to start and for good reason. It’s one of the more accessible Faulkner books, it truly is comic, and it’s an adventure story not that dissimilar to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a kind of coming of age story about an 11 year old who on a short trip to Memphis, learns an immense deal about men, women, race, and the society he exists in.

This is definitely not a book you want to give too much of the plot away. In short, Lucius Priest (now 60) is reminiscing to his son about the time in 1905 when his grandfather bought the first automobile in Jefferson, Mississippi. 11 years old then, Lucius and older friend of the family, Boon Hogganbeck  borrow/steal the automobile to drive up to Memphis. Soon after starting, they discover a stowaway hiding under a tarp in the back–Ned William McCaslin who is Black and a distant relative to Lucius. As with many Faulkner books, The Reivers includes many of the characters and relatives from the McCaslin/Edmondses family tree found in other works.

Soon after arriving in Memphis, Ned trades the automobile for a stolen race horse that won’t run, with the grand scheme to set up a horse race in which they can win the automobile back and keep the horse too. Ned has a secret that he believes will get the horse to “run”, a secret that was previously successful in getting a mule to win any race it entered. Arriving in Memphis, Boon visits a brothel where we meet Miss Reba, Boon’s “gal” Miss Corrine, and Minnie, a Black maid with a gold tooth that has Lucius smitten.

1905. Road trip. Brothels. Horse racing… and all under the treatment of Faulkner. Say. no. more. Similar to some of the stories in Go Down Moses, in Faulkner’s hand this “road trip” story unfolds on a scale of fabled proportion.  Characters appearing in the novel are drawn out so vibrantly: Ned William McCaslin the brilliant con man and reader of men, Miss Reba who runs the bordello, Otis a 15 year old monster visiting his aunt Corrine at the brothel, and Butch, the horrific bastard of a White sheriff who embodies all that was so wrong for Blacks in the South. The language and dialogue is so rich and intelligent, even when coming out of the mouths of the ignorant.

I am going to mention as well that I began reading the book on a day that officially heralded in the era of “make America great again,” or so it is said anyway. As I began to read The Reivers I couldn’t help but think that, no, what makes America great is not an ugly rhetoric based on misinformation and lies, what makes America great (at least in part) are its artists, musicians and storytellers who distill the American experience into something we universally recognize and share. It’s literature like The Reivers that both makes America great, as well as depicts its greatness. Certainly I’m not suggesting that the South of 1905 is a benchmark in America we should be striving to return to. The racism and Jim Crow era is on full display in The Reivers, especially embodied in the sheriff, Butch. But counter to that darkness are some of the most dignified human portraits of Blacks, as well as relationships between Black and White, found in American literature. It shows its people’s shared humanity, intelligence, pluck, and ability of its people to have a solidarity with one another that is based not on color, but on character. The novel is a depiction of American people and of a society beginning to find mutual respect for each other, while also living with the realities of its persistent racism.

Given the age of Faulkner when he wrote it, coupled with the subtitle, “A Reminiscence,” this should be enough to inform readers that The Reivers will be something of a golden, wistful remembrance of childhood in the South, of a time when the very first automobiles ever seen were appearing on the roads. If you can imagine the novelty and wonder of even sitting in the first automobile to appear in town, let alone taking a road trip in it, then this may be the book for you. The novel is all of that, and yet a profound book as well. There is a fable-like quality to it, with larger than life characters and a depiction of a post Civil War America growing into itself.

Lastly, there is a hook in the story that once set, will keep you reading to the end: the secret of how Ned can make a horse who doesn’t want to run, run. I would absolutely love to tell you Ned’s secret ingredient–it’s really too good not to share. When I finally found out what that secret was, I laughed, and I mean really laughed. But I could never live with myself if I ever stole that opportunity to experience joy from someone. So I’ll leave you with this. Feeling uncertain about the world? Bogged down with social media posts and “Breaking News” about Beyonce’s pregnancy status? Cable news got you pulling out your hair? Stop, turn it off, buy a copy of The Reivers, and regain some hope in humanity.

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As a fan of both Faulkner and Modern Library editions, I had to post this photo from the back of the dust jacket.

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