Bordellos, Bandits And One Big Mississippi Adventure
W. Ralph Eubanks is the author ofEver Is a Long Time andThe House at the End of the Road . He is director of publishing at the Library of Congress.
The work of William Faulkner looms as a mountain too high to climb for many readers, with his long, complex sentences and shifting point of view. But Faulkner's famously tangled mix of literary techniques meant nothing when I was about 12 years old and picked up a copy of The Reivers.
All I knew was that a boy about my age was the book's central character and its action revolved around a series of misadventures involving a stolen car and horse.
Looming larger in my mind was an article I read in a magazine about an upcoming movie of The Reivers and that the movie bore the M rating, meaning for mature audiences only. So, reading The Reivers was going to be my chance to see what happened in an off-limits film.
At the time I barely knew who Faulkner was, much less anything about his literary reputation. But I did love a book with adventure, and The Reivers seemed to have the right mix of action and adult content. So after coming home from Boy Scout camp, yearning for something to get me through the rest of the summer on my sleepy Mississippi farm, I walked past the children's shelf on the bookmobile and went straight to the adult shelf at the back.
What I didn't know when I pulled the book off the shelf, but that I do know now, is that The Reivers is a painless introduction to the work of William Faulkner. It is his most straightforward narrative. It echoes Mark Twain, but with Faulkner's distinct cadence.
The story is about a boy, Lucius Priest, who heads off from the Mississippi town of Jefferson in Yoknapatawpha County to an adventure in Memphis with a child of a man named Boon Hogganbeck. Boon plays Huck Finn to Lucius' innocent version of Tom Sawyer, and a wise-cracking black man named Ned McCaslin is thrown in for good measure. Issues of race and sex run through the book, since part of the story takes place inside a bordello, a concept I did not understand when I started the book, but did upon finishing it.
The summer I read The Reivers, I was as innocent and naive as the book's main character, Lucius. Still, I found the story funny and engaging and it was instrumental in leading me to other works of Faulkner. Rereading it recently, I appreciate it even more, since it allowed me a window into my younger, more innocent self. Now I understand all the nuances of the story and not just the major parts of the book's action. When I was younger, there were a few things I struggled to comprehend, like this passage:
" 'Jesus,' Miss Reba said. 'A whore, a pullman conductor and a Missippi swamp rat the size of a water tank leading a race horse through Memphis at midnight Sunday night, and nobody will notice it?"
Now I do understand it and laugh not just at Faulkner's wry sense of humor, but at myself. Lucius lost his innocence in The Reivers. In the pages of that book I lost a bit of my innocence as well.
PG-13is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Gavin Bade.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.