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Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Bordellos, Bandits And One Big Mississippi Adventure

Jul 3, 2012
Originally published on July 3, 2012 7:06 pm

W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of Ever Is a Long Time and The 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.

Pretty cool.

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-13 is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Gavin Bade.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

July 6th marks the 50th anniversary of William Faulkner's death. Among the millions of people who revere Faulkner is another Southern author, Ralph Eubanks. When he was a teenager, Eubanks wanted what lots of kids want, namely anything that his parents said was off limits, and that's why he picked up Faulkner's "The Reivers."

Ralph Eubanks may have lost the urge to defy his parents, but he hasn't lost his love of Faulkner, and he recommends "The Reivers" for our series PG-13, in which writers talk about a book that ushered them into adulthood.

RALPH EUBANKS: The work of William Faulkner is too high a mountain for many readers, with those long, complex sentences and shifting points of view. But when I was 12, his famously tangled techniques meant nothing to me, so I picked up a copy of "The Reivers." All I knew was that there was a boy about my age and a stolen horse and car - pretty cool. So I walked past the children's shelf on the book mobile and went straight to the adult section at the back. What I didn't know then but that I do know now is that "The Reivers" is a painless introduction to the work of William Faulkner.

It's his most straightforward narrative, and it echoes Mark Twain but with Faulkner's distinctive cadence. The story is about a boy named Lucius Priest, who heads off from the Mississippi town of Jefferson. Soon, he's on an adventure in Memphis with a child of a man named Boon Hogganbeck. There's also Ned McCaslin, a wise-cracking black man thrown in for good measure. Issues of race and sex run through the book, part of the story takes place inside a bordello, a concept I didn't understand when I started it but definitely got by the time I finished it.

The summer I read "The Reivers," I was as naive as Lucius. Now, I understand all the nuances of the story, and I can 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.

SIEGEL: Mississippi native Ralph Eubanks, his latest book is called "The House at the End of the Road," a story of race, identity and memory. He's also the director of publishing at the Library of Congress, and the book he recommended was "The Reivers" by William Faulkner. At our website, you can find more PG-13 recommendations, as well as lists of summer reads from our critics and correspondents. That's at nprbooks.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.