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William Faulkner: The Reivers

Faulkner’s final novel, published barely a month before his death, is a light-hearted, easy-going romp, in marked contradistinction to some of his earlier far more serious works. It is thoroughly enjoyable, full of humour and, of course, very well-written. Reivers, by the way, comes from an old Scottish word meaning robbers, though it is not clear why Faulkner chose this as the title for his novel. The story is set, as always, in Yoknapatawpha County or, at least, the opening section is, though the novel soon moves to Memphis. It is set at the beginning of the automobile age and this is the key to the story.

The story is fairly simple. It is narrated by the eleven-year old Lucius Priest. His maternal grandfather has died in St. Louis and his family (his parents and his paternal grandparents) set off for St. Louis for the funeral, leaving Lucius behind in the tender care of Boon Hooganbeck and Ned McCaslin, the old, black family retainer. Boon is a giant of a man and was discovered when young in the woods, living on his own and may or may not be a descendant of one of the Indian chiefs who lived in the area. He now works various jobs for Lucius’ father and others, including driving the family car. However, he remains a child at heart. Boon has a plan for when the older family members leave and that is to take a long trip in the car and he enlists Lucius and Ned to join him. They are very willing to join him, particularly as there is an unspoken assumption that a long trip means a trip to Memphis.

The journey is eventful, not least because roads were not made for cars at that time and they have to dig their way out and enlist the aid of unscrupulous locals. When they arrive, they stay at a local whore-house which, of course, provides for more humour. However, their problems start when Ned swaps the car for a horse. Ned, who can be quite stubborn, is determined that this is a good deal and that they can race the horse, win back the car and keep the horse. Of course, it does not quite turn out the way they planned. Who is to ride the horse? Where is the race? (Their journey there is also as epic as their journey to Memphis.) And who does the horse really belong to? Eventually, it more or less turns out well in the end. Faulkner’s telling of the tale is masterful and, while not in any way serious, it is very enjoyable.

Publishing history

First published 1962 by Random House