William Faulkner is the most famous American author that no one reads. My basis for saying this is an unofficial poll I have been conducting ever since I married into a family of the same name, in which I ask people who comment on the name if they have read Faulkner, and they invariably answer in the negative!
Nearly everyone, it seems, has read some Dickens and struggled through Hamlet, but the works of Faulkner, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and two Pulitzer Prizes, appear to be largely uncharted territory. One Faulkner scholar explains: “For many readers Faulkner remains an Everest too steep and craggy to climb. His dense, at times overwrought prose, his exceedingly complex plots; the intertwined genealogies that connect his books to each other, and the sheer immensity of his ouvre – these and other challenges scare people away.” (Jonathan Yardley, “William Faulkner’s Southern Draw: The Reivers,” The Washington Post, January 6, 2004, p.C01)
We know Faulkner is great, but we don’t know him. It’s time to change that, and an easy place to start is with the last book he wrote. The Reivers was published a month after Faulkner’s death in 1962 and won for him (posthumously) his second Pulitzer Prize. It is the most accessible and the most hopeful of all his works – both a serious moral tale and a very funny book.
Like most of Faulkner’s novels, The Reivers is set in rural Mississippi, in a fictional county called “Yoknapatawpha.” Though he began by writing of more exotic locales, Faulkner was advised by a friend to write about the place he knew best. He said, “Beginning with Sartoris (his third novel) I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.” (Lion in the Garden, 255.)
“Reivers” is an old Scottish word meaning “robbers,” and this rollicking novel is actually the story of a series of thefts. The theft that starts everything in motion happens when “Boss” Priest, a venerable family patriarch, leaves town with his wife, son and daughter-in-law for a funeral, entrusting his eleven-year-old grandson Lucius to the care of his black servants and his beautiful new Winton Flyer automobile (one of only eleven in Mississippi) to the care of his white hired man, Boon Hogganbeck. To say Boon loves this automobile is a gross understatement, and in Faulkner’s description of the car and the man you may begin to see his genius. His down-home, folksy narration (the voice is that of the boy, Lucius, now grown to be an old man himself) has the wandering digression that makes your grandfather’s stories both fascinating and infuriating, with a wonderful dry sarcasm about everything modern. Faulkner critic Malcolm Cowley called this “a sort of homely and sober-sided frontier humor that is seldom achieved in contemporary writing.”
“So he bought the automobile, and Boon found his soul’s lily maid, the virgin’s love of his rough and innocent heart. It was a Winton Flyer … You cranked it by hand while standing in front of it, with no more risk (provided you had remembered to take it out of gear) than a bone or two in your forearm; it had kerosene lamps for night driving and when rain threatened five or six people could readily put up the top and curtains in ten or fifteen minutes, and Grandfather himself equipped it with kerosene lantern, a new axe and a small coil of barbed wire attached to a light block and tackle for driving beyond the town limits.”
Boon, left alone with the car, the key, and four empty days, cannot resist the temptation to take it to Memphis (an eighty mile journey over dirt roads), and young Lucius becomes his willing hostage, along with the black servant Ned, who stows away in the rumble seat. If you’ve read Dickens’s, The Pickwick Papers, or the adventures of Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows, you are familiar with a picaresque novel, one that rambles through a set of adventures, with our heroes getting into one scrape after another. The stolen car gets traded (don’t ask me how or why) for a stolen racehorse named Lightning. The racehorse must be ridden in a race to win back the car, and Lucius must ride it. Underneath the comedy however, The Reivers deals with some very serious themes – morality, Christian virtue and racism – and does so with the same gift of understatement that characterizes its humor.
Issues of morality and the Christian virtues turn up on virtually every page of this novel. Lucius, the cherished eldest son of a prosperous family, must work every Saturday morning while his fellows play ball. He has been strictly raised to behave as a “gentleman,” and worships his old grandfather, Boss Priest, who embodies for him all the virtues that title implies. Shielded from evil by a loving family, Lucius assumes that he is a good boy. Yet from the moment that Lucius consents to accompany Boon in the stolen car, he enters a losing battle with his conscience.
What Lucius doesn’t realize is that the stolen car is just the beginning, and he is being thrown into a situation far more evil and perilous that he could have imagined. For Boon is on his way to Memphis to visit a prostitute in a Memphis “bawdy” house, and through him Lucius is exposed to the seamy underside of city life. He meets the alcoholic proprietor of the house, the crooked lawmen who frequent it, and a despicable young nephew who is visiting and acts as the worst possible guide to this strange new world. Then there is the woman herself, Corrie, whose obvious goodness wins his heart immediately. She is the kind of person of whom Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees: “The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not; but the publicans and the harlots believed him.” (Matthew 21:31-32)
Through Otis, the despicable nephew, Lucius learns the tragic history of Corrie’s life, and becomes her champion. Lucius is overwhelmed by the revelation of so much, so soon. He says, “I knew too much, had seen too much. I was a child no longer now; innocence and childhood were forever lost, forever gone from me.” Meanwhile, Corrie is watching this young boy, thrown into a veritable cauldron of evil, and calling upon his covenants to keep him afloat. Though he may have made a mistake in coming along for the ride, Lucius is indeed a “good boy,” and proves himself so over and over. My favorite moment in the book (and one I have shared with my own young son) occurs when the owner of the house offers Lucius a beer. Though the man is so offensive that I must edit out his language, Lucius keeps his morals, and his manners:
“Is yours a beer-head too?”
“No sir,” I said.