The basic plot of The Reivers takes place in the first decade of the 20th century. It involves a young boy named Lucius Priest (a distant cousin of the McCaslin/Edmonds family Faulkner wrote about in Go Down, Moses) who accompanies a family friend named Boon Hogganbeck to Memphis, where Boon hopes to woo a prostitute called "Miss Corrie". Since Boon has no way to get to Memphis, he steals (reives, thereby becoming a reiver) Lucius's grandfather's car, the first car in Yoknapatawpha County. They discover that Ned McCaslin, a black man who works with Boon at Lucius's grandfather's horse stables, has stowed away with them (Ned is also a blood cousin of the Priests). When they reach Memphis, Boon and Lucius stay in the brothel while Ned disappears into the black part of town. Soon Ned returns, having traded the car for a racehorse.
The remainder of the story involves Ned's attempts to race the horse in order to win enough money to help out his relative, and Boon's courtship with Miss Corrie (whose real name is Everbe Corinthia). Lucius, a young, wealthy, and sheltered boy, comes of age in Memphis. He comes into contact for the first time with the underside of society. Much of the novel involves Lucius trying to reconcile his genteel and idealized vision of life with the reality he is faced with on this trip, portrayed in his struggle between Virtue and Non-Virtue. He meets Corrie's nephew, a boy a few years older than Lucius who acts as his foil and embodies many of the worst aspects of humanity. He degrades women, respects no one, blackmails the brothel owner, steals, and curses. Eventually Lucius, ever the white knight, fights him to defend Corrie's honor. She is so touched at his willingness to stand up for her that she determines to become an honest woman.
The climax comes when Lucius rides the horse (named Coppermine, but called Lightning by Ned) in an illicit race. Coppermine is a fast horse, but he likes to run just behind the other horses so he can see them at all times. Ned convinces him to make a final burst to win the race by bribing him with what may be a sardine. After they win the race, Lucius's grandfather shows up. This time Ned does not do the sardine trick, and Coppermine loses. Ned has bet against Coppermine in this race, and the poor black stable hand is able to get the better of the rich white grandfather.
The story ends with the news that Boon and Miss Corrie have married and named their first child after Lucius.