An American Odyssey: The Reivers by William Faulkner

The ReiversThe Reivers by William Faulkner

The story of a car theft run amok, The Reivers is Faulkner’s final novel. But instead of reading as a capstone to his career, summing up everything he’d written, it’s more of a comic adventure through the rural south. And while it’s not one of his major novels, in its own way, it’s an enjoyable, rewarding read.

Set in the spring of 1905, The Reivers follows 11-year old Lucius Priest, Boon Hogganbeck and Ned McCaslin on a road trip up through Yoknapatawpha County to Memphis. Taking advantage of a family emergency, this trio “borrows” Grandfather Priest’s car and sets off to Memphis. Soon, the car’s gone and they’re mixed up in horse smuggling, knife fights, illegal gambling, prostitution and hiding out from the law. Miss Reba, who had a role in his earlier novel Sanctuary, makes an appearance.

It’s a fun adventure, constantly putting Priest in some sort of danger, but always with a tacit knowledge that everything’s going to work out; after all, the story’s written as a monologue told by a much-older Priest, a story he’s entertaining his grandkids with. As the action shifts from a road trip to a horse race, it slowly pulls back the shades on the characters: Boon, simple but well-meaning, quick to impulse and even quicker to violence; Ned, who plays down his intelligence, letting him outwit everyone and quietly pull the strings in the background.

Then there’s the centre of the book, Priest, who’s 11 and quickly learning the world isn’t as rosy as he believed. He punctuates the story with his commentary, reminding his audience he was only a kid, putting things together as he went along:

“Because I was only eleven; I had not learned yet that no horse ever walked to the post, provided he was still on his feet when he got there, that somebody didn’t bet on.”

The way he tells the story gives it the feel of an oral epic: I kept thinking this felt like The Odyssey set in the American south. His stream-of-consciousness approach here is a good sample of the kind of writing Faulkner uses in his major works, but on a smaller scale (there’s only Lucius, who’s a lot easier to follow than, say Benjy Compson), which makes this a good one to recommend to readers new to Faulkner.

Rating: 7/10. Generally, The Reivers is considered a minor Faulkner novel. And that’s true: it’s not epic on the same scale as Absalom, Absalom! or The Sound and the Fury. But a minor Faulkner is worth a major from most other authors: this is a book brimming with life and color. While it doesn’t have the same spark as his major books, I thought it’s only real drawback was an alarmingly blase attitude to domestic violence. Recommended, especially if you’re just getting interested in him.


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