The Reivers

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One of Faulkner’s comic masterpieces, The Reivers is a picaresque that tells of three unlikely car thieves from rural Mississippi. Eleven-year-old Lucius Priest is persuaded by Boon Hogganbeck, one of his family’s retainers, to steal his grandfather’s car and make a trip to Memphis. The Priests’ black coachman, Ned McCaslin, stows away, and the three of them are off on a heroic odyssey, for which they are all ill-equipped, that ends at Miss Reba’s bordello in Memphis. From there a series of wild misadventures ensues—involving horse smuggling, trainmen, sheriffs’ deputies, and jail.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Reivers

One

Grandfather said:

This is the kind of a man Boon Hogganbeck was. Hung on the wall, it could have been his epitaph, like a Bertillon chart or a police poster; any cop in north Mississippi would have arrested him out of any crowd after merely reading the date.

It was Saturday morning, about ten oclock. We-your great-grandfather and I-were in the office, Father sitting at the desk totting up the money from the canvas sack and matching it against the list of freight bills which I had just collected around the Square; and I sitting in the chair against the wall waiting for noon when I would be paid my Saturday's (week's) wage of ten cents and we would go home and eat dinner and I would be free at last to overtake (it was May) the baseball game which had been running since breakfast without me: the idea (not mine: your great-grandfather's) being that even at eleven a man should already have behind him one year of paying for, assuming responsibility for, the space he occupied, the room he took up, in the world's (Jefferson, Mississippi's anyway) economy. I would leave home with Father immediately after breakfast each Saturday morning, when all the other boys on the street were merely arming themselves with balls and bats and gloves-not to mention my three brothers, who being younger and therefore smaller than I, were more fortunate, assuming this was Father's logic or premise: that since any adult man worth his salt could balance or stand off four children in economic occupancy, any one of the children, the largest certainly, would suffice to carry the burden of the requisite economic motions: in this case, making the rounds each Saturday morning with the bills for the boxes and cases of freight which our Negro drivers had picked up at the depot during the week and delivered to the back doors of the grocery and hardware and farmers' supply stores, and bring the canvas sack back to the livery stable for Father to count and balance it, then sit in the office for the rest of the morning ostensibly to answer the telephone-this for the sum of ten cents a week, which it was assumed I would live inside of.

That's what we were doing when Boon came jumping through the door. That's right. Jumping. It was not really a high step up from the hallway, even for a boy of eleven (though John Powell, the head hostler, had had Son Thomas, the youngest driver, find, borrow, take- anyway, snaffle-from somewhere a wooden block as an intermediate step for me) and Boon could have taken it as he always did in his own six- foot-four stride. But not this time: jumping into the room. In its normal state his face never looked especially gentle or composed; at this moment it looked like it was about to explode right out from between his shoulders with excitement, urgency, whatever it was, jumping on across the office toward the desk and already hollering at Father: "Look out, Mr Maury, get out of the way," reaching, lunging across Father toward the lower drawer where the livery stable pistol lived; I couldn't tell whether it was Boon lunging for the drawer who knocked the chair (it was a swivel chair on casters) back or whether it was Father who flung the chair back to make himself room to kick at Boon's reaching hand, the neat stacks of coins scattering in all directions across the desk and Father hollering too now, still stomping either at the drawer or Boon's hand or maybe both:

"God damn it, stop it!"

"I'm going to shoot Ludus!" Boon hollered. "He's probably clean across the Square by now! Look out, Mr Maury!"

"No!" Father said. "Get away!"

"You wont let me have it?" Boon said.

"No, God damn it," Father said.

"All right," Boon said, already jumping again, back toward the door and out of it. But Father just sat there. I'm sure you have often noticed how ignorant people beyond thirty or forty are. I dont mean forgetful. That's specious and easy, too easy to say Oh papa (or grandpa) or mama (or grandma), they're just old; they have forgotten. Because there are some things, some of the hard facts of life, that you dont forget, no matter how old you are. There is a ditch, a chasm; as a boy you crossed it on a footlog. You come creeping and doddering back at thirty-five or forty and the footlog is gone; you may not even remember the footlog but at least you dont step out onto that empty gravity that footlog once spanned. That was Father then. Boon came jumping without warning into the office and almost knocked Father chair and all over grabbling at the drawer where the pistol was, until Father managed to kick or stomp or whatever it was his hand away, then Boon turned and went jumping back out of the office and apparently, obviously, Father thought that was all of it, that it was finished. He even finished cursing, just on principle, as though there were no urgency anywhere, heeling the chair back to the desk and seeing the scattered money which would have to be counted all over now and then he started to curse at Boon again, not even about the pistol but simply at Boon for being Boon Hogganbeck, until I told him.

"He's gone to try to borrow John Powell's," I said.

"What?" Father said. Then he jumped too, both of us, across the office and down into the hallway and down the hallway toward the lot behind the stable where John Powell and Luster were helping Gabe, the blacksmith, shoe three of the mules and one of the harness horses, Father not even taking time to curse now, just hollering "John! Boon! John! Boon!" every three steps.

But he was too late this time too. Because Boon fooled him-us. Because John Powell's pistol was not just a moral problem in the stable, it was an emotional one too. It was a .41 calibre snub-nosed revolver, quite old but in excellent condition because John had kept it that way ever since he bought it from his father the day he was twenty-one years old. Only, he was not supposed to have it. I mean, officially it did not exist. The decree, as old as the stable itself, was that the only pistol connected with it would be the one which stayed in the bottom right hand drawer of the desk in the office, and the mutual gentlemen's assumption was that no one on the staff of the establishment even owned a firearm from the time he came on duty until he went back home, let alone brought one to work with him. Yet-and John had explained it to all of us and had our confederated sympathy and understanding, a unified and impregnable front to the world and even to Father himself if that unimaginable crisis had ever arisen, which it would not have except for Boon Hogganbeck-telling us (John) how he had earned the price of the pistol by doing outside work on his own time, on time apart from helping his father on the farm, time which was his own to spend eating or sleeping, until on his twenty-first birthday he had paid the final coin into his father's hand and received the pistol; telling us how the pistol was the living badge of his manhood, the ineffaceable proof that he was now twenty-one and a man; that he never intended, declined even to imagine the circumstance in which he would ever pull its trigger against a human being, yet he must have it with him; he would no more have left the pistol at home when he came away than he would have left his manhood in a distant closet or drawer when he came to work; he told us (and we believed him) that if the moment ever came when he would have to choose between leaving the pistol at home or not coming to work himself, there would have been but one possible choice for him.

So at first his wife had stitched a neat strong pocket exactly fitting the pistol on the inside of the bib of his overalls. But John himself realised at once that this wouldn't do. Not that the pistol might fall out at some irretrievable moment, but that the shape of it was obvious through the cloth; it couldn't have been anything else but a pistol. Obvious not to us: we all knew it was there, from Mr Ballott, the white stable foreman, and Boon, his assistant (whose duty was night duty and so he should have been at home in bed at this moment), on down through all the Negro drivers and hostlers, down to the last lowly stall-cleaner and even to me, who only collected the Saturday accumulation of freight bills and answered the telephone. On even to old Dan Grinnup, a dirty man with a tobacco-stained beard, who was never quite completely drunk, who had no official position in the stable, partly because of the whiskey maybe but mostly because of his name which was not Grinnup at all but Grenier: one of the three oldest names in the county until the family went to seed-old Doctor Habersham and his servant, Alexander Holston, and the Huguenot Louis Grenier who crossed the mountains from Virginia and Carolina after the Revolution and came down into Mississippi in the seventeen-nineties and established Jefferson and named it-who (old Dan) lived nowhere (and had no family save an idiot nephew or cousin or something still living in a tent in the river jungle beyond Frenchman's Bend which had once been a part of the Grenier plantation) until he (old Dan) would appear, never too drunk to drive it, at the stable in time to take the hack to the depot and meet the 9:30 pm and the 4:12 am trains and deliver the drummers to the hotel, or on duty all night sometimes when there were balls or minstrel or drama shows at the opera house (at times, at some cold and scornful pitch of drink, he would say that once Greniers led Yokna?patawpha society; now Grinnups drove it) holding his job some said because Mr Ballott's first wife had been his daughter, though we in the stable all believed it was because when Father was a boy he used to fox-hunt with old Dan's father out at Frenchman's Bend.

Obvious (the pistol) not only to us but to Father himself. Because Father knew about it too. He had to know about it; our establishment was too small, too intricate, too closely-knit. So Father's moral problem was exactly the same as John Powell's, and both of them knew it and handled it as mutual gentlemen must and should: if Father were ever compelled to acknowledge the pistol was there, he would have to tell John either to leave it at home tomorrow or not come back himself. And John knew this and, a gentleman too, he himself would never be the one to compel Father to acknowledge the pistol existed. So, instead of in the overall bib, John's wife stitched the pocket just under the left armpit of the jumper itself, invisible (anyway unobtrusive) both when John was wearing the jumper or when in warm weather (like now) the jumper hung on John's private nail in the harness room. That was the situation of the pistol when Boon, who was being paid to be and who in a sense had given his word that he would be at home in bed at this hour instead of hanging around the Square where he would be vulnerable to what had sent him rushing back to the stable, came jumping through the office door a minute ago and made Father and John Powell both liars.

Only Father was too late again. Boon fooled him-us. Because Boon knew about that nail in the harness room too. And smart too, too smart to come back up the hallway where he would have to pass the office; when we reached the lot John and Luster and Gabe (the three mules and the horse too) were still watching the still-swinging side gate through which Boon had just vanished, carrying the pistol in his hand. John and Father looked at each other for about ten seconds while the whole edifice of entendre-de-noblesse collapsed into dust. Though the noblesse, the oblige, still remained.

"It was mine," John said.

"Yes," Father said. "He saw Ludus on the Square."

"I'll catch him," John said. "Take it away from him too. Say the word."

"Catch Ludus, somebody," Gabe said. Though short, he was a tremendously big man, bigger than Boon, with a terrifically twisted leg from an old injury in his trade; he would pick up the hind foot of a horse or mule and lock it behind the warped knee and (if there was something-a post-anything-for him to hold to) the horse or mule might throw itself but no more: neither snatch that foot free nor get enough balance to kick him with the other one. "Here, Luster, you jump and catch-"

"Aint nobody studying Ludus," John said. "Ludus the safest man there. I seen Boon Hogganbeck"-he didn't say Mister and he knew Father heard him: something he would never have failed to do in the hearing of any white man he considered his equal, because John was a gentleman. But Father was competent for noblesse too: it was that pistol which was unforgivable, and Father knew it,-"shoot before. Say the word, Mr Maury."

"No," Father said. "You run to the office and telephone Mr Hampton." (That's right. A Hampton was sheriff then too: this one's grandfather.) "Tell him I said to grab Mr Boon as quick as he can." Father went toward the gate.

"Go with him," Gabe told Luster. "He might need somebody to run for him. And latch that gate."

So the three of us went up the alley toward the Square, me trotting now to keep up, not really trying to overtake Boon so much as to stay between Boon and the pistol and John Powell. Because, as John himself had said, nobody needed to study Ludus. Because we all knew Boon's marksmanship, and with Boon shooting at Ludus, Ludus himself was safe. He (Ludus) had been one of our drivers too until last Tuesday morning. This is what happened, as reconstructed from Boon and Mr Ballott and John Powell and a little from Ludus himself. A week or two before, Ludus had found a new girl, daughter (or wife: we didn't know which) of a tenant on a farm six miles from town. On Monday evening, when Boon came in to relieve Mr Ballott for the night shift, all the teams and wagons and drivers were in except Ludus. Mr Ballott told Boon to telephone him when Ludus came in, and went home. That was Mr Ballott's testimony. This was Boon's, corroborated in part by John Powell (Father himself had gone home some time before): Mr Ballott was barely out the front door when Ludus came in the back way, on foot. Ludus told Boon that the tire on one of his wheels had loosened and he had stopped at our house and seen Father, who had told him to drive the wagon into the pond in the pasture where the wood of the wheel would swell back to the tire, and stable and feed the mules in our lot and come and get them in the morning. Which you could have expected even Boon to believe, as John Powell immediately did not, since anyone who knew either would have known that, whatever disposition he made of the wagon for the night, Father would have sent Ludus to lead the team back to their stalls in the livery stable where they could be cleaned and fed properly. But that's what Boon said he was told, which he said was why he didn't interrupt Mr Ballott's evening meal to notify him, since Father knew where the mules and wagon were, and it was Father, not Mr Ballott, who owned them.

- About the author -

William Faulkner, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. He published his first book, The Marble Faun, in 1924, but it is as a literary chronicler of life in the Deep South—particularly in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the setting for several of his novels—that he is most highly regarded. In such novels as The Sound and the FuryAs I Lay DyingLight in August, and Absalom, Absalom! he explored the full range of post–Civil War Southern life, focusing both on the personal histories of his characters and on the moral uncertainties of an increasingly dissolute society. In combining the use of symbolism with a stream-of-consciousness technique, he created a new approach to fiction writing. In 1949 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. William Faulkner died in Byhalia, Mississippi, on July 6, 1962.

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The Reivers

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The Reivers

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