Monday, 9 December 2013

The Reivers

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.


  1. The Southern patois of 'As I Lay Dying' can be a Joyce like impediment... worth working at; I think that you'll like the dark humour of it.
    If you like dysfunctional families and want to fuck up your nostalgic regard for the Waltons once and for all you might go for the bleeding obvious:
    'The Sound and the Fury'.
    T'aint easy and t'aint fun but it is moving and... real.
    "The grave hopeless sound of all voiceless misery under the sun."
    If you can get to chapter 3 it's a relative (!) breeze.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations Trevor. I plan on reading at least one more Faulkner next year.

  2. You started at that end! Don't just keep working backwards, whatever you do. A Fable is the worst book ever written by a great writer.

    I put As I Lay Dying at the top - a great masterpiece - but the entire run from The Sound and the Fury in 1929 through Go Down, Moses in 1942 is astounding. The greatest concentrated creative burst in American literature. The short fiction should definitely be included in that run.

    1. Thanks Tom. I think I'm going to have to invest. I started back to front because of my reliance on finding books on Charity Shop shelves but he is proving difficult to find. I'll remain warned on A Fable and also try to dig up a short story collection. I actually think I did read a couple of short stories when younger..
      I enjoyed this one, though it is not typical, I guess.