Chapter 42: “The Reivers” by William Faulkner (1963)

“Sometimes you have to say goodbye to the things you know and hello to the things you don’t!”

ReiversBack into the Pulitzer Project and already two books down, and only 39 to go—I’m out of the forties!

Getting back to reading actually hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it was going to be; granted, I’m not spending nearly as many hours per day as I used to when I was single and had a part time job, so it’s taking me about three to four times as long to get through books, but still—I’m managing to at least find some time to read. I guess that’s the way it is with adulthood—gone are the days of spending up to ten hours at once reading, now are the days of being a shadow and gazing longingly at my bookshelves.

At least William Faulkner allowed me to live a vicarious life of excitement through his main characters in his 1963 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Reivers.

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There was something jarring about this book, in that The Reivers is a really traditional picaresque novel with a linear plot—which is really a non-traditional way of writing for Mr. Faulkner. A few months ago, as you may recall, I made the tragically mind-numbing mistake of reading Faulkner’s companion Pulitzer novel, A Fable, in one day—a novel, I later discovered, that a lot of Faulkner experts recommend reading over a really long period of time. So, I approached The Reivers cautiously; and with a lot more respect. I wanted to give myself time with it, to fully understand it; to fully comprehend it; to fully appreciate it.

Things got off to a fast start—the first five or six chapters came and went, so I slowed down my pace. All the while, I had it in the back of my mind “This novel is about to get crazy… Any page now… Any page now…” Before I knew it, I only had about 50 pages left and I realized that The Reivers was unlike any other William Faulkner I’ve ever read. Everything happening in the novel was crystal-clear; there weren’t any sentences that lasted longer than a whole page; there wasn’t any stream of consciousness to be found anywhere. It was just a very straightforward and fun little story about a trio of rabble-rousers in 1905 Yoknapatawpha County.

For these reasons, The Reivers is often regarded as a lesser work, or ignored all together by Faulkner scholars and critics.

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I later learned a bit more about the novel—The Reivers was to be William Faulkner’s last published novel, and earlier in his life, he had referred to writing a “Golden Book of Yoknapatawpha County” to finish up his literary career, so it’s very likely that The Reivers was meant to be that “Golden Book.” Readers of this generation probably would have known what Faulkner was referring to—the wildly popular children’s book series, Little Golden Books, published by Random House Publishers (also the publisher of The Reivers). You may recall their biggest selling book, The Poky Little Puppy (pictured on the right), originally published in 1942. I certainly do—I think I may have actually owned a reprint of this book. At the very least, you’ll probably recognize the classic cover design.

Faulkner, of course, spoke figuratively—he didn’t mean he was going to write a 15 page children’s picture book; but I, for one, would have loved to see him write something akin to The Poky Little Puppy to finish up his career. Maybe that’s just me, but I’m okay with being alone on this one.

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After reading The Reivers, though, I think I understand what Faulkner must have meant by a “Golden Book of Yoknapatawpha County”—this novel, though it deals with a lot of adult themes (like thieving, prostitution, gambling, swearing, et al), seems very much a novel that was meant to be directed to young adults. It read a lot like and even the plot was comparable to Mark Twain’s classic novels of rabble rousing kids like Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, and Tom Sawyer. Much like those lighthearted Mark Twain books, The Reivers is a picaresque novel—a story about roguish, rascally heroes of low social status who live their lives and overcome obstacles by using their wits.

This story revolves around three such rascals—Boon Hoggenbeck, Ned McCaslin, and the young Lucius Priest. While Lucius’ family leaves him home alone to attend a funeral, Boon decides to steal Lucius’ grandfather’s brand new car (the very first car in Yoknapatawpha County) and drive it from Mississippi to Memphis to woo a prostitute named Miss Corrie and convince her to marry him. Lucius, of course, tags along and along the way, they discover that Ned, a black man who works in the grandfather’s stables, also stowed away with them. They arrive in Memphis, take up shelter in the brothel that Boon’s sweetheart works at, and Ned retreats to the black part of town—where he trades in the car for a racing horse named Coppermine.

For the duration of the novel, Ned races Coppermine to win enough money to help out a family member in need and Boon attempts to win Miss Corrie’s heart. Meanwhile, Lucius Priest—who comes from a wealthy family—comes into contact, for the first time, with society’s seedy underbelly. This is where little Lucius comes of age, losing all of boyhood innocence as he attempts to reconcile his idealized vision of life and genteel nature with the cruel, harsh, dark realities of life.

Really, this novel is a story about the grey area in between black and white realities. Characters who make their living in the dark reacting to the light; characters who live their lives in the purity of the light reacting to the darkness.

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What’s also non-traditional about this novel for William Faulkner is that he doesn’t even really tell this story in a clever way—he uses very transparent metaphors and symbolism to do so. To toe the line between the dark and the light, he uses a white man and a black man; to explore the difference between two radically different lifestyles, he uses two children who come from radically different lifestyles.

This isn’t really a complaint so much as it is merely an observation. Faulkner himself referred to The Reivers being a “Golden Book,” so I can only guess that it wasn’t his intention to write an overly clever novel to continue being a darling for literary scholars and critics. I have to believe that Faulkner just wanted to have a little bit of fun with his last novel. And if that truly is the case, then a tip of my hat is in order for William Faulkner.

I had just as much fun reading this one as he probably had writing it.

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