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William Faulkner's Southern Draw: 'The Reivers'

" 'Bow your head,' and we did so and he said grace, briefly, courteously but with dignity, without abasement or cringing: one man of decency and intelligence to another: notifying Heaven that we were about to eat and thanking It for the privilege, but at the same time reminding It that It had had some help, too; that if someone . . . hadn't sweated some, the acknowledgment would have graced mainly empty dishes, and said Amen and unfolded his napkin and stuck the corner in his collar exactly as Grandfather did, and we ate . . . ."

This is in some ways an implacably sunny book, but any temptations Faulkner may have felt toward nostalgia are tempered by the clear eye through which he always viewed the world. Black characters are treated indifferently or contemptuously or cruelly simply because they are black; a brutal deputy sheriff named Butch is the embodiment of rural Southern law at its worst; a nasty 15-year-old named Otis behaves unspeakably toward Minnie, Lucius and anyone else who crosses his path; people cheat, lie and steal, and some get away with it.

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One aspect of "The Reivers" that is both interesting and unusual is that it is a coming-of-age novel written not at the beginning of its author's career but at the very end. It has the wisdom of Faulkner's age and experience. What begins as a lark for Lucius turns into the most instructive experience of his life. His parents and grandparents have gone out of town. In their absence Boon persuades Lucius to climb aboard Grandfather Priest's new automobile -- a Winton Flyer that is Boon's "soul's lily maid, the virgin's love of his rough and innocent heart" -- and drive off for high adventure in Memphis. Ned comes along as a stowaway, and the romp is on.

That is how it starts, but matters soon get serious. The three reivers are "innocents, complete innocents at stealing automobiles," but as one thing piles atop another, Lucius soon realizes that "I had already told more lies than I had believed myself capable of inventing." Desperately, he wishes none of it had happened, "the whole thing no more than a dream from which I could wake tomorrow." It is overwhelming: "I knew too much, had seen too much. I was a child no longer now; innocence and childhood were forever lost, forever gone from me."

Yet he knows that he can't quit. As the horse race at the novel's climax approaches, he understands that "once we were in it, I had to go on, finish it, Ned and me both even if everybody else had quit." Finish it he does, and then accepts the consequences, as administered by Grandfather Priest in the poignant closing scene.

As the extracts quoted above make plain, "The Reivers" is written in prose at once distinctly Faulknerian yet entirely accessible. It provides a way to accustom oneself to Faulkner's language without becoming immediately lost in it, as can happen to someone who wanders all innocence into "Absalom, Absalom!" or "The Bear." It gives you an introduction to the genealogy of Yoknapatawpha without overwhelming you in its intricacies. It sets forth many of Faulkner's most important themes in clear, persuasive ways. No, it is not among his masterworks, but it is a lovely book, funny and touching and Faulkner to the core.

"The Reivers" is available in a Vintage paperback ($12).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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