For about the first hundred pages, I thought this second "novel of the Snopes family," William Faulkner's The Town, bore the same relation to the preceding novel, The Hamlet, that Tom Sawyer, Boy Detective bore to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: a thin revisiting of a place and its people. But the novel grows significant, and even tragic, as it advances, even as it never loses (for long) its comedic tone and structure.
The novel consists of a series of episodes (two published as short stories) all depending directly on or circling around Flem Snopes, the rapacious, amoral striver from The Hamlet. In that novel, which is more fragmented because it incorporates separately published stories that, together, possess a less-coherent focus, we see Snopes at a distance, from the perspective of sewing-machine salesman V.K. Ratliff, who recognizes that an Enemy has come to town. Though that novel, too, features some comedic scenes, the voluptuous writing and Ratliff's sense of impending catastrophe make the book feel like a Greek tragedy. We hear less from Ratliff in The Town, and what we hear doesn't sound like the raconteur of the (much) earlier novel.
Whereas the narrative of The Hamlet unfolds through novellette-length tales, each tragic, the stories here are briefer, and almost all are comic. The three voices, Ratliff, county attorney Gavin Stevens (referred to by Ratliff as Lawyer Stevens), and Stevens's nephew Charles ("Chick") Mallison, who was too young for many of the early chapters and thus must relate some stories second hand—take turns, telling overlapping tales, picking up where each other left off, providing different perspectives on the same events. Stevens's voice becomes the most evocative, culminating in a kind of hymn linking the small events of his town to the entire natural world.
Ratliff's task in this novel is to keep an eye on Flem Snopes—and on the proliferation of Snopeses in Jefferson. However, Snopes seems less an evil force in this book. People interact with him, albeit warily; we hear more from him; he takes a more public role in the town; we gain insight into why he behaves as he does; and Faulkner finally allows us to sympathize with him. Snopes is, I suppose, a sociopath, unable to form the kinds of bonds other people take for granted, unfamiliar with the kinds of motives that drive others. He merely acquires, even when he doesn't yet know the true value of an acquisition. Ultimately, he wants to be respectable, to have lifted himself from his dirt-poor beginnings.
After the novel slows and deepens, its final chapter is another lark, a goofy tale of four dangerous Snopes children who terrorize families and resist civilizing. It seems an odd note on which to end, what with all the preceding ruminations on mortality and loss—which should make one ask what Faulkner sees in this anecdote, and how it connect to the other stories that form the novel.
One element that runs through everything is this sense that Flem Snopes embodies some kind of acquisitive force, so much so that the name Snopes itself, no matter to whom its attached, conjures up Flem's propensity to dominate. Yet Faulkner also repeatedly undercuts this notion, pointing out how no other Snopes is quite like Flem, and that instead their failures lead Flem—the person who brought them all to Jefferson—to find ways to repudiate them and remove them from his social sphere.
This connects to the larger idea of family, and how one's name and background carry certain ramifications from which one struggles to escape. Snopes attempts to alter people's perception of him (while also following his acquisitive aims) by marrying, in the previous novel, the already pregnant Eula Varner. But Eula's infidelity throughout The Town complicates this attempt, and Faulkner follows those complications to a dramatic conclusion. Likewise, one never forgets the family histories that provide every character a context, and characters see themselves mirrored, sustained, or trapped by their families. Gavin Stevens has a twin sister, and her understanding of him means he can't escape other people's sense of why he does what he does.
Eula's infidelity and Gavin Stevens's attraction to her (and, later, to her daughter) link to another overarching theme, the sexual desires of people in the town. Though Faulkner novels are always rich with "perversion," and The Town has some of that, refreshingly, Faulkner places front and center a married couple—Maggie, Lawyer Stevens's sister, and her husband Charles, whose son is one of the narrators—who bring ribald humor and a healthy sex drive to the fore in many of their scenes. No other character is so fortunate. Whether impotent, frustrated, cuckolded, or satiated, every other character has a sex life that isn't following the expected path—certainly not the path proscribed by the firm Protestants of Faulkner's South.
And thus we get "the town." Faulkner could easily have presented the problematic sex lives and judgments of watchful eyes as the typical unpleasantness one associates with small towns and left it at that. But Faulkner tells us repeatedly, through little Chick Mallison, that people in Jefferson are nice, that the town is a good place to live. Yes, people judge one another, but they're pragmatic, too, withholding judgment or at least withholding a verbal response because to treat every sin as if it requires quashing would upset the progress of things. People want banks that protect their money, even if they have their doubts about the people in charge; they want progress, though cars have often been a sign of trouble; they want to continue this experiment that brings men and women together in painful, frustrating ways—because isn't that how the world proceeds?