This week I’m looking at books that I think are worth rereading – and that I’ve reread more than once. These stand up to my tests, and I’ll try to articulate what it is I like about them. If any of them intrigue you, I hope you’ll give them a shot. I envy you the first-time experience.
The Reivers was William Faulkner’s last book. He had discussed a general plot outline about thirteen years earlier, so he had a vision about what he wanted. It must have been a fairly complete vision, because he took only a few months in the summer of 1960 to write it. It was published the following spring, a couple of months before his death. A unifying and loving look at Yoknapatawpha County, with characters, families, and histories from his other books infusing the narrative, The Reivers won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963, making Faulkner one of a select few to receive the prize twice.
It is also, I believe, one of his most accessible stories, sharing his insights into humanity in a funny and charming tale. That’s not to say it is an easy read. His convoluted sentences and lengthy paragraphs, the diversions that may lead to a dead end or provide important context to the narrative, and the not-quite stream of consciousness narrative are all present, but Lord! he pulls it off with ease. Any reader who allows himself to be drawn into the story and the rich language will be rewarded.
The Reivers is subtitled “A Reminiscence,” and that is how the story flows – a grandfather, perhaps sitting on a porchwith bourbon and lemon, talking to his grandson and telling the story of his astonishing and life-altering trip to Memphis. Just as many older storytellers do when they pass along tales of their world, the teller – Lucius Priest – brings in characters and events from outside the main narrative. His asides on Virtue and Non-Virtue, his thesis on smart animals, and his understanding of women shore up Lucius’ story with the wisdom he acquired after a lifetime of contemplating it.
Briefly, The Reivers is about Lucius going on a journey with Boon Hoggenbeck in a car they’ve stolen from Lucius’ grandfather. Boon is off to Memphis to visit Miss Corrie, a prostitute at Miss Reba’s, and Lucius is his camouflage – but they also discover that Ned McCaslin, a black man who works for Lucius’ family, has stowed away. Shortly after their arrival in Memphis, Ned shows up with Coppermine, a racehorse he has swapped for the car. Ned makes an outrageous proposal to win back the car (and pick up some money along the way) with a secret plan to make the horse run.
Lucius, already exposed to life in a house of ill repute, now becomes the jockey for an ad hoc race meet, riding a horse he discovers is stolen. The meet, a best-2-of-3 against a thoroughbred that has already handily beaten Coppermine, draws people from all over the region. The attention, welcome and unwelcome, has dire consequences for Lucius, Ned, Boon, and Misses Reba and Corrie. The colorful confusion of the meet itself, the plots and counterplots to win the race, and Lucius’ return home wrap up the story in a riotous parade of whimsy, bigotry, love, and sorrow for Lucius’ lost innocence.
Faulkner’s sure hand with characters allows him to draw them with a few strokes, then develop them in unexpected ways. He captures the settings – the small town run by the local aristocrats, the brothel and its intrigues, the ‘true democracy’ of a racetrack – with sensuous language, and creates set pieces ripe with humor.
I read The Reivers at least twice in the early ’90s, then again (three times this summer!) for a recent book group series. I return to it to find new uses of language, to revisit and learn more from the characters, and to marvel in the seemingly effortless way Faulkner sustains the storytelling atmosphere. As impressed as I was with Absalom, Absalom (er, the only other Faulkner novel I’ve read), this is the one I put in people’s hands, and the one that sits ready for rereading at my leisure.
Check the WRL catalog for The Reivers