Monday, 9 December 2013
The Reivers - William Faulkner
"..Fortune is a fickle jade, who never withholds but gives, either good or bad: more of the former than you ever believe (perhaps with justice) that you deserve; more of the latter than you can handle."
A couple of years back I was thinking about authors that I hadn't read and the two names that were top of my list were Proust and Faulkner. Last year I filled the Proust sized gap and finally I have started on Faulkner.
I was, I guess primed for difficulty and was highly surprised to find myself in a romp with strong echoes of Mark Twain. This was Faulkner's last book, published a mere month before his death and it is told from the point of view of an old man. However, it is not a lament for life passed but a coming of age tale about how his eleven year old self gets caught up in a madcap adventure involving a 'borrowed' car, a stolen racehorse and sardines. And much else besides.
In some ways, though, it is a lament, a lament for wilder times. The car which is the catalyst for this tale has also been, says the narrator, the end of the true wild, a wild which was close at hand in the time of this story, 1905: "...by 1940 ... they - we - would load everything into pickup trucks and drive two hundred miles over paved highways to find enough wilderness to pitch tents in; though by 1980 the automobile will be as obsolete to reach wilderness with as the automobile will have made the wilderness it seeks."
There is a wildness in the character's too. Life seems to have been painted in primary colours, with the final wilderness a closer companion than it has become. The story really starts when the narrator's parents and grandparents head off to a funeral, which will mean that they are away from home for at least four days: "people took funerals seriously in those days. Not death: death was our constant familiar: no family but whose annals were dotted with headstones whose memorialees had been too brief in tenure to bear a name even - unless of course the mother slept there too in that one grave, which happened more often than you would like to think." People "died at home then, in the same rooms and beds they were born in, instead of in cubicles euphemisms with names pertaining to sunset."
This time is an opportunity for Boon Hogganbeck to consummate his love for grandfather's car, one of the first in the region. Faulkner introduces Boon with an anecdote about a shooting where we find that Boon is highly immature, hair trigger but fortunately a dreadful shot. He is protected by the family: "..(Boon) was a mutual benevolent protective benefit association, of which the benefits were all Boon's and the mutuality and the benevolence and the protecting all ours." He is a loyal retainer but one who "was tough, faithful, brave and completely unreliable.."
There is a sense that this world is supported by a very strong sense of mutuality, in terms of family, workplace and wider communities. Lucius' father has him working because "even at eleven a man should already have behind him one year of paying for, assuming responsibility for, the space he occupied, the room he took up, in the world's (Jefferson, Mississippi's, anyway) economy." You won't find too many eleven year old men in modern western economies.
The pistol that Boon uses in the above mentioned shooting is taken from the pocket of one of the other workers in the livery stables. He always has the pistol with him, against company rules, because he will not be parted from it: "he had earned the price of the pistol by doing outside work on his own time, on time apart from helping his father on the farm, time which was his own to spend eating or sleeping, until on his twenty-first birthday he had paid the final coin into his father's hand and received the pistol; telling us how the pistol was the living symbol of his manhood.." Work, money and a gun make a man in this world. With, perhaps, a few other ingredients.
There is a great sequence where, despite his best efforts, Boon has to pay to have the car pulled from a muddy patch by the very farmer who plowed up the road, a more profitable enterprise than farming, it appears. It also makes very interesting reading on the relationship between the white 'masters' and family retainers, and the broad definition of family that includes more than just blood relations, although many blood relationships exist. although slavery had been abolished, many seem to live a life not too far from that of a favoured slave.
Faulkner has fun with long rambling passages on the fall of Lucius from the path of righteousness to becoming involved in the stealing of his grandfather's car. There is a great deal of cynicism: "When grown people speak of the innocence of children, they don't really know what they mean" and "No epoch of history nor generation of human beings either ever was or will be big enough to hold the un-virtue of any given moment, any more than they could contain all the air of any given moment; all they can do is hope to be as little soiled as possible during their passage through it."
However, the "un-virtue" is more curiosity and adventurousness than anti-virtue. These are certainly on the love-able end of the rogues gallery. Taking a young boy to a brothel in a stolen/borrowed car which they then swap for a racehorse may seem pretty bad but the tone is always humorous rather than moral. It reminded me of early slapstick movies; as if those jerky, silent fantasies were documentaries.
Not that there aren't rogues. Butch a corrupt sheriff could have dropped in from a Jim Thompson novel: "Butch moving right on in before she could turn, jovial, already welcome - or somebody damn well better see that he was..." There is also Otis, the younger brother of one of the prostitutes, who will do anything to enrich himself. He thinks of one thing only, money. ""Jack," Otis said. "Spondulicks. Cash. When I think of all that time I wasted in Arkansas before anybody ever told me about Memphis. That tooth. How much do you reckon that tooth by itself is worth?" If you have a gold tooth, and Otis is around, don't gape for too long!
But rogues or no, this is a sparkling comedy, and, as a comedy, it has a happy end, of sorts. I look forward to my next collision with Mr Faulkner. Recommendations welcomed.