Friday, August 5, 2016

Little Boy, Big Girl, Gray World: A Review of William Faulkner's The Reivers

   

  When in the course of a boy’s life it becomes necessary to encounter an adult version of integrity or the lack thereof, said boy is nearly always at a disadvantage. None of the teachers, parents, or pastors he has had in his life can anticipate such a thing, or if they can, they certainly cannot know when it will occur and when it is appropriate to prepare the boy for it. And perhaps there is no preparing for it, and all any boy can expect to have at his disposal is his education for handling the child version of integrity, which is really the mere distinction between right and wrong. It is wrong to lie always, and to steal and to cheat. Adults take such concepts and twist them into Gordian knots that take seventy years of wisdom, or eighty if strong, to unravel. In short, the world is gray. But being deficient of such years, said boy is deficient of the information he needs to make the right decision. In fact, by the time he realizes there is a decision to make, and the gravity of it, the time when deciding is efficacious may have passed. Faulkner’s Lucius is that boy.
     The story is told as seen through the eyes of eleven-year-old Lucius Priest. However, the speaker is actually the decades-older Lucius, spinning a tale of his youth for his grandson. This older speaker is able to use the benefit of wisdom to comment on his early encounters with mature decisions:
When grown people speak of the innocence of children, they dont [sic] really know what they mean. Pressed, they will go a step further and say, Well, ignorance then. The child is neither. There is no crime which a boy of eleven had not envisaged long ago. His only innocence is, he may not yet be old enough to desire the fruits of it, which is not innocence but appetite; his ignorance is, he does not know how to commit it, which is not ignorance but size.[1]
It is easy to forget the maturity of the speaker, until one encounters in the narrative, comparisons of early twentieth century events with the technology of modernity, a proliferation of automobiles and airplanes flying in formation, which bring us back to the timeframe of the older speaker. Fiction writers often favor child speakers because of their clarity, the lack of knots in their sense of integrity. Though we can remember significant events of youth in detail, the perspective of childhood is immediately lost. This is why history is written, and does not simply exist in factual data. In this story, we have the benefit of seeing events through Lucius’s young eyes, while hearing the voice of a deeper experience.
     Lucius is what Faulkner, in a letter to his publisher, called “a normal boy”[2]. This is important in its contrast with the two other main characters, Boon Hogganbeck and Ned McCaslin. He is normal in the sense that Faulkner’s readers identify with him. He is intelligent and educated. Boon is mentally challenged, Ned suffers from all of the cultural disadvantages of being a black man in the early twentieth century, including a lack of formal education, and though he is perhaps the wisest of the three, he tends to use his wisdom for iniquitous ends. Boon and Ned have the advantage of experience in adult integrity. This contrast provides a significant portion of the humor in the story.
     Faulkner stands up Lucius, then proceeds to throw all manner of sinfulness at him. Lying to his relatives, stealing a car, the crooked mule driver, the brothel that becomes his temporary home, corrupt lawmen, gambling, and a knife fight, --Memphis!--all in the space of a few days. His only age-appropriate companion, Otis, is no more “normal” than any of the adults sharing Lucius’s adventure. He never has a chance. In such a whirlwind, the only thing a decent boy can do is sail with said wind until he can hold on to something against it.
What priorities does Lucius have? What virtues are most important to stand up for in the whirlwind of vice that befalls this Mississippi boy unbridled in Tennessee? There seem to be two. One is defense of those who are good, but vulnerable and trod upon. The “big girl,” Everbe, named perhaps for her perseverance in the face of hard knocks, is the victim he must stand up for. Her bigness means that small things don’t matter as much, and also that she, or what she represents, is important. Lucius's defense of her, as much as an eleven-year-old could muster against bigger, more experienced men with their version of the law on their side, is decisive. The other virtue is fortitude to finish what one starts. Lucius rode the horse Lightning (Coppermine) with great skill and obedience, and made some people a great deal of money, but the money was of no concern. He was driven to finish his job. And once he had stepped over a moral line by lying his way into a stolen car, there was no turning back until he had completed his task, even though he had no idea he was going to be a jockey when he left Jefferson, Mississippi, nor did anyone else. But that was how events came about.
Faulkner was no stranger to vice. He lied about his military service in World War I, and was a hard drinker when he was not writing. But he had a place in his heart for the vulnerable and trod upon, particularly blacks. In The Reivers, their race is perhaps represented by Everbe more than by Ned or any of the other black characters. For her whole existence in this story, her demeanor is that of one bothered by the lack of consideration, even from Boon, who just knows he wants her, whether it is as a whore or a wife. It does not seem to make a difference to him until he is forced to decide. She is used by her Madame, Reba, for financial gain. She does not seem to have a say in what happens to her, and carries a heavy burden in the person of the infamous boy Otis. What better stand-in for people of color? Meanwhile, blacks and whites mix thoroughly in Faulkner’s world, not unlike they do in the real South. All are participants in the story, participants in life together. To set one race apart would be like eliminating the letters, or the page beneath them, from the book. Half of the world would be gone. So Everbe, ever existing, is the oppressed. Ever is she present, not taking anything away from the hilarious journey of Lucius, Boon, and Ned.



[1] William Faulkner, The Reivers (New York: Vintage International, 1999), 46-47.
[2] Ibid., 95.