Dear The Reivers by William Faulkner:
After finishing what ended up being my most stressful semester of school yet (third semester of law school, it was a lot), I immediately knew what book I needed to pick up: you, the unread Faulkner book that had been waiting for me on my shelf for months. I’ve loved Faulkner as a writer for years, ever since I was assigned to read The Sound and the Fury in my Introduction to Literature class as a freshman in college. I am fascinated by his writing, by the fictional Yoknapatawpha County he constructed in such intense detail that it feels undoubtedly real when I picture it in my mind. Yet my relationship with Faulkner has always been a bit conflicted due to the sexism and racism that often runs like an undercurrent through his works. In certain texts it is apparent that he was trying to confront these issues, but the language he uses nevertheless carries the painful legacy of the American South with it. I’m not excusing Faulkner at all, and my love for his writing certainly isn’t blind–he’s a writer that I read with an incredibly critical eye.
With that being said, I knew that you would be the perfect book to read after a long semester of missing literature. Reading you was like releasing a long-awaited exhale. Before long, I was sinking into the topsy-turvy narrative of Lucius Priest, an eleven-year-old boy from Jefferson, Mississippi who is persuaded to steal his grandfather’s car and embarks on a wild trip to Memphis. I have many, many favorite Faulkner novels, and was a bit worried about how you would fit into that list at first. But I am happy to report that you have found your way among my favorites.
First, I should say that you are unlike most of the other Faulkner novels that I have read. Although you do have a bit of trick in narration up your sleeve (being told from an older man to his grandson, from the perspective of when he was eleven years old himself), your story is relatively straightforward otherwise. Interestingly, you are the last novel that Faulkner ever published. After being published in 1962, you won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1963. Yet you are often given less scholarly attention than some of Faulkner’s other novels due to your rather light-hearted, funny tone and more straightforward narration. I think that is a huge mistake. Your humor and wit does not negate the fact that you ask important, rather dark questions about growing up, race, class, sex work, and even how machines have steadily replaced nature. You remind readers that life is not singularly serious or singularly funny–life is both, and so is literature.
One of your major themes is loss of “innocence,” particularly in childhood. It was interesting to read from the perspective of an older man looking at eleven-year-old self, conscious at the time that he was living through a turning point in his youth. He is painfully and regretfully aware that he is losing his “innocence” (I keep putting it in quotes because what is innocence?) even as it is happening. At points Lucius tries to walk in these new adult shoes he’s found himself in (figuratively speaking), but it isn’t long before we’re reminded that is still an eleven-year-old boy, homesick for Jefferson, Mississippi at the end of the day. In this tug-of-war between “Virtue” and “Non-Virtue” as Lucius calls it, we see that perhaps “innocence” is never fully lost. Even at the end of the novel, there is still a sort of “innocence” (naivety? is that what Faulkner was getting at?) in Lucius hope for the future, embodied by a certain baby.
“Your outside is just what you live in, sleep in, and has little connection with who you are and even less with what you do.”The Reivers by William Faulkner
Finally, I loved your very last scene. Faulkner’s novels always seem so cyclical to me, forever circling back through narration, setting, or some other parallel. Here, Faulkner once again uses names to convey a sense of history endlessly repeating itself. Family names repeat and repeat and repeat themselves all the time in Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, a familiar drumbeat running through future generations. Your ending had both a sense of finality and continuity, which I think is the perfect conclusion to Faulkner’s last published novel.
My main criticism of you is the way women are treated in this novel. While Faulkner’s language is often sexist (frequently calling a certain woman a “big girl,” etc.) it is also a marker of how sexist the South was during the early twentieth century. In that respect, I think Faulkner reflects the reality of some sex workers at that time, at least in part.
Every time I read a Faulkner novel, I am reminded of why I love reading. Maybe that, in part, is why I love his writing so much.
You were well worth the wait, The Reivers.
P.S. I learned that “reivers” means “thieves” or “those who rob.” Very clever title.