The great Southern novelist and story writer William Gay died at his home in Hohenwald, Tennessee, on February 23rd of this year, at the age of 70. An intensely private man who valued his reclusion and had no interest in the sometimes shameless self-promotion required by authors, Gay spoke at great length and on numerous occasions with William Giraldi in 2008 in preparation for Giraldi’s essay “A World Almost Rotten: The Fiction of William Gay,” the only in-depth critical analysis of Gay’s novels and stories. We offer Giraldi’s essay for the legion of Gay’s heartbroken fans, and for those lucky ones who are about to discover for the first time this important voice in American fiction.
In William Gay’s scorched world Flannery O’Connor is present less like a looming ghoul than an elderly aunt who lives in his house and will not die. And yet despite O’Connor’s strong presence (and the unavoidable presence of the Yahweh of Southern literature, the god from whom no male writer in the South can ever hope to flee) Gay’s work is wholly its own, pulsing with both tradition and novelty. His books have been crafted from darkness: The Long Home (1999), Provinces of Night (2000), Twilight (2006), and the story collection I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002). Gay is, along with Barry Hannah, Cormac McCarthy, and Harry Crews, one of the four horsemen of the Southern apocalypse.
There was not a single pocket in Tennessee in which Gay could hide from Faulkner’s commanding influence. For an aspiring writer in working-class Lewis County, Faulkner existed in the very air. He was a kind of Delphic oracle for new scribes: without him nothing even remotely literary came to pass. Gay read Faulkner in the thirty-five-cent Signet editions he bought at the local drugstore in Hohenwald, Tennessee. He had been buying notebooks and pens since childhood, but now, late in high school, charged by O’Connor’s and Faulkner’s doomed visions of the South, he began to formulate his own fiction, began to heed the insistent voices calling from within. His parents contemplated the boy as something of an anomaly; although Gay was the first in the family to finish high school, his mother and father weren’t sure that writing was a prudent choice of occupation. Gay’s father toiled as a sharecropper and at whatever blue collar drudgery came along. His two younger brothers fell in line; they and their father had enough Southern machismo to fire a rocket. They hunted and fished; Gay, on the other hand, “wasn’t much interested in killing things.” About his mother, Gay offers one word only: “Loyalty.”
A vigilant teacher in high school noticed that the boy was reading Zane Gray westerns in his extra time, and thinking Zane Gray too inferior for the boy’s thriving intellect, the teacher passed him a copy of Look Homeward, Angel. Gay considers this gift the turning point of his life: Wolfe’s novel ignited him to his core; it proffered him the insight that this can be done, that a writing life for him was not a drunken pipe dream. Alongside J.T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel is the quintessential American novel of experience, of growing, of how a home fashions a psyche for good or for ill. It allotted Gay the confidence to tell the stories of his own experience and the certain knowledge that those experiences were valuable even though they lacked privilege and swagger. Wolfe lit the green lantern at the end of the dock; O’Connor and Faulkner provided him the vessel to get there.
Here is the horror story, a masterpiece of brutality and loss worthy of O’Connor: In an upscale region in Tennessee, a wealthy Pakistani couple employs tradesmen to complete work on their mansion. The paperhanger—he has no name; the force within him eludes definition—feels belittled by the wife. The couple’s tiny daughter pesters him; she plays with his hair while he labors on his knees. His calm in the face of this annoyance is unnatural, otherworldly. Then the tiny girl goes missing in the house; authorities arrive to mount a search; the paperhanger and others have their vehicles checked, and then they aid in the search. She is not found. Months pass. The Pakistani couple separates under the strain. The grief-sunk wife keeps returning to the unfinished mansion. She meets the paperhanger there one afternoon. That evening they lie in his bed after alcohol and urgent intercourse; the wife sleeps. And then the paperhanger goes from the bedroom only to return a moment later with the frozen body of the tiny girl, wrapped in plastic. He arranges the corpse next to her mother, and then himself disappears into the ancient evening.
Gay’s “The Paperhanger” temps you to classify it, explain it, wonder at its majesty and terror—the story is “The Tell-Tale Heart” written by the bastard offspring of Wilkie Collins and Charles Manson, in a prose part Hebrew Bible, part Hemingway—and then defies such feeble attempts at comprehension, at reduction. The story breathes, enigmatically, as if just born; the odors of blood, beer, and birth fluid waft up from the page. Gay’s story offers almost no information about these characters: not where they come from, not their fevered dreams, not what they yearn for at first light. In his short fiction, Hemingway—an early, necessary influence on Gay—famously withholds motives and histories. Gay learned from Hemingway never to clarify what the reader is capable of clarifying himself; verbosity maims, insults the dignity of narrative. In “The Paperhanger” we know only how the characters react in the midst of an unexpected mystery, how their language reveals their warped psyches, and with that alone Gay enables us to know them for life, to taste their sweat.
The paperhanger is simultaneously ominous sprite and veritable everyman. Once her mother drifted from the room, the little girl jabbed out her tongue at him and the paperhanger’s hand shot from his side like “a serpent” and snapped the child’s neck. Fragile as a Christmas bulb, she was tiny enough to fit inside his toolbox. What psychological explanation does Gay give for the paperhanger’s crime? None—not boyhood trauma or possession by devils—because he knows that such explanations are trite, exhausted, imaginary, that human beings commit acts of abrupt barbarity that no therapist, no writer, can ever adequately explain. When the paperhanger appears with the frozen body in his arms, the moment is outrageous, satanic, inevitable. As the wife sleeps, the paperhanger whispers: “Sometimes . . . you do things you can’t undo. You breaks things you just can’t fix. Before you mean to, before you know you’ve done it. . . . There are things only a miracle can set to rights.” Does he regret the murder in those lines, the devastation he delivered to a family? Regret is possible only when one has not accepted one’s nature or the cruelty of the wilderness from which we emerged naked and panting like beasts. The paperhanger is too much himself, too comfortable with Hobbesian analyses of human destiny, or what Hume aptly called “the natural depravity of mankind,” to wonder how he ought be a more benevolent man.
He departs in the wife’s car, “tracking into wide-open territories he could infect like a malignant spore,” and thinking about “not just the possibility but the inevitability of miracles.” He will beget more carnage, to be sure. The miracle he ponders: the rabid injustice of this business called living, God’s abandonment of his creation, lunatics set loose. It seems a miracle that a place designed by a loving deity could be thoroughly polluted by such monsters. The man knows he’s an abomination; he’s made his peace with that fact. The second miracle: how Gay can massage your morality into feeling miniature sparks of sympathy for this child killer, a lonesome and forsaken recluse who suspects that his own birth was a cosmic error.
“The Paperhanger” turns V.S. Pritchett’s definition of the short story, “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing,” into something that confronts you head-on, always. O’Connor accomplishes the same magic throughout A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the story collection Gay read as an adolescent; he bought the Signet paperback and knew—immediately, instinctually—that they were the best American stories ever written. He marveled over her packed sentences, her perfect endings. Gay studied O’Connor the way an evangelical studies Genesis, and from her brilliance he learned how short fiction is shaped, how a character can come alive in just a few lines, and, more important, how to tell a story that matters.
When the novel The Long Home arrived in the world a decade ago, William Gay was fifty-six years old and right away compared to both Barry Hannah and Larry Brown. Where did those years go between the teenager who read Wolfe and the middle-aged man who published his first novel? They went to the Navy, to Vietnam, and then after the war to stints in Chicago and Greenwich Village (Gay bumped into Janis Joplin at a pub). Back in Tennessee the years went to marriage, to children, to a mortgage, and to the construction work that paid for it all. But his time also went to reading and writing, to accumulating experience that no campus could provide, to honing his craft into a diamond tip. The chasm of those decades was widened by the fact that Gay didn’t know writers, hadn’t made academic connections, wasn’t given feedback. But when The Long Home finally appeared it felt like a masterwork and not a first novel because it was the product of forty-odd years of practice. At a time when twenty-two-year-olds scribble sensational memoirs badly disguised as serious novels, it humbles one to think of William Gay in Hohenwald, Tennessee, patiently tapping the keys of his typewriter for four decades.
The Long Home takes its name from Ecclesiastes—“Because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets”—and commences with a boom: in the undulating green environs of 1940s Tennessee, the earth has burst open with the muscle of an atom bomb, the result of either a seismic disturbance or the dawning of Judgment Day. This groaning gorge sits center stage as the four principal characters—Nathan Winer, Amber Rose, William Tell Oliver, and Dallas Hardin—circle it in a contest of reckoning. Hardin murdered Winer’s father in a dispute over illegal whiskey and then dropped his body into the gorge. Winer was only a child at the time; he doesn’t know what dirty fate befell his father. Dallas Hardin earns his fortune bootlegging and presides over the countryside like an ex-Baptist Mafioso. Old man Oliver takes the teenage Winer into his tutelage, and by the time Hardin and Winer are done scrapping over Amber Rose, there is blood.
Like Milton’s dazzling Satan, Dallas Hardin makes off with all the applause. Gay’s reader becomes a pubescent lass from a good family who falls for the foulmouthed bad boy with a switchblade. In his villainy and hunger for destruction, Dallas Hardin is first cousin to the title character of Pete Dexter’s Paris Trout, another masterpiece about a Southern psychopath with a fondness for bullets and blades. Trout goes through the damaged world in reticence, creepy and devoid of all charm; one imagines him stinking of urine and gasoline. Hardin, meanwhile, traverses his won territory with suave assurance, always in control, always self-righteous. He speaks like a backwards Jesus and probably reeks of fifty-dollar cologne. His name indicates his worldview: hard-headed, hard in the heart—only the hard survive. Furthermore, he is hard for Amber Rose, the teenage girl he helped raise after he stole her and her mother from the dying man whose property he confiscated and now occupies.
Where is the law? In Gay’s world, the law lies mostly impotent and shriveled on the other side of town. It can be cajoled without much effort or else ignored altogether. In Hardin’s case, he has paid the scoundrels in uniform to turn their backs on his criminality. If the law does come knocking, as it does in Gay’s story “Sugarbaby,” the knock seems a callous affront to an individual’s right to freedom. In that story, Finis Beasley blasted his wife’s little dog from the back porch with a large caliber handgun because its “yip yip yip” made him batty. His wife deserted him, sued for divorce, and Beasley ignored the letters from lawyers and the summonses to appear in court. The law arrives to apprehend him, and when it does, Beasley simply cannot muster the incentive to go quietly. He tells his son-in-law at one point, “I’ve always minded my own business. . . .Kept my own counsel. I’ve always believed if a man minded his own business everybody would leave him alone.” Beasley’s actions are less a case of gun-toting Southern insurrection than a fed-up exhaustion in the face of authorities mightier than the individual. The aggravation of so many inconveniences piles up to the point that Beasley feels disgusted by his own powerlessness. This disgust for his own pathetic, diminutive place in the cosmos fuels his violence. He would have chosen peace if he had been given the opportunity to choose, if he had been left alone. Dallas Hardin, however, stomps through The Long Home choosing sadism and savagery because he knows no other method of being.
In Gay’s able hands the archetypal characters of The Long Home spring to life as if for the first time: the young man on a quest; the gray sage who guides him; the comic sidekick who aids him; the gorgeous damsel who inspires him; and the villain who tries to thwart him. Their language is so authentic it seems not written at all: you listen to their dialogue as they sit in the same room with you. It’s speech that smells: the Coca Cola and cool beer belches, the early morning conversations held through the aroma of black coffee drunk from jars. Midway through the novel, Hardin and Winer stand out in the afternoon sun on Hardin’s property. Hardin had hired Winer to do carpentry on a honkytonk he wants built, and on this day the boy notices that Hardin is clutching his father’s knife. Hardin took it from Winer’s father the night he murdered him; when the boy asks how Hardin came by the knife, he claims he found it in the cedar grove.
“Your pa lit out, didn’t he?”
“I don’t know what happened to him. I never did believe he lit out and I don’t believe it now.”
“Well, folks is funny. I don’t care how close you think you know somebody, you don’t know what wheels is turnin in their head. Course you don’t remember but times was hard for folks back then. Times was tightern a banjo string. Lots of folks was on the road. He might’ve just throwed up his hands and said fuck it and lit out.”
“Well. I ain’t tryin to tell you what to think about your own daddy. But seems to me me and you’s a lot alike.”
Hardin tells the boy that his own father abandoned him as well, which may or may not be the truth: Hardin, like Milton’s Satan, is the great deceiver. Winer then offers to pay for the knife.
“Hell, take it. You said it belonged to your pa.”
“Well, you’ve had it all these years. Decide what you want for it and hold it out of my pay.”
“Hell, no. If it means something to ye, take it on. Seems to me it’s a damn poor substitute for a pa but such as it is you’re welcome to it.”
You will not locate written speech more authentic than that: every syllable in its place, the cadence as smooth and firm as the skin on a drum. The lines also suggest the ambivalence of Dallas Hardin’s character: the killer, rogue, and corrupter of Amber Rose who nevertheless attempts to give Winer honest employment, world-wary advice, and a free knife. One roots for Hardin’s comeuppance while at the same time wishing for his repentance. This is testament to Gay’s tremendous skill as a craftsman: his South contains no cartoon drawings, no simplistic Zoroastrian division of darkness and light. In Gay’s world, as in ours, the wicked are laced with good and the good are always part devil.
The Long Home owes its intricacy of assembly to The Sound and the Fury—the book Gay received from his high school teacher when he finished with Look Homeward, Angel—and yet the novel never feels as convoluted as Faulkner’s because Gay has a Dickensian aptitude for densely woven patterns of plot and character that cohere without seam or effort. The dense, verdant prose style, sweet and slow like sap—a vibrant language of poetic intensity—achieves newness in every paragraph.
Then lightning came staccato and strobic, a sudden hush of dryfies and frogs, the walls of the attic imprinted with inkblack images of the trees beyond the window, an instantaneous and profound transition into wall-less night as if the lightning had incinerated the walls or had scorched the delicate tracery of leaf and vine onto the wallpaper. Then gone in abrupt negation to a world of total dark so that the room and its austere furnishings seemed sucked down into some maelstrom and consigned to utter nothingness, to the antithesis of being, then cool wind was at the trees, the calm eddying away like roiled water.
If Gay shares with McCarthy a rich vernacular packed with flare, he also commands sentences composed of simple independent clauses strung together with the conjunction “and,” sentences that would feel at home in any of the Nick Adams stories. Hemingway’s reliance on concrete nouns is a lesson in the accuracy of the five senses, but it is Faulkner’s and O’Connor’s mytho-religious storytelling sensibility that infuses The Long Home from start to finish.
During one of our numerous phone conversations, Gay clarified what first struck him about Faulkner: “He took ordinary people and gave them mythic dimensions. Wolfe’s people are loftier, more aware of themselves. But Faulkner’s people are in the middle of it all, buffeted and battered by life.” In The Long Home, the narrator remarks that the men and women who frequent Hardin’s honkytonk—soldiers, drifters, wastrels with something to hide—are turned grand by their circumstances: “The songs and the lights and the quickened pulse of their lives made them larger than life so that they saw themselves as figures of myth and tragedy.” Later, when Oliver tells Winer the violent history of their region, the boy “wondered what the truth was, secretly doubted there was any truth left beneath the shifting weight of myth and folklore.” But of course Gay knows that myth and folklore are truth, or at least one way of arriving at truth: the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. Winer’s wondering about the plausibility of truth does not amount to a trendy relativism since the boy is “buffeted and battered” and thoroughly confused. In the preface to the revised edition of Brother to Dragons (1979), Robert Penn Warren writes: “Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” Warren captures Gay’s mission in The Long Home precisely: the intersection of myth and history and how the truth makes itself known through living.
Cormac McCarthy’s wasteland mingles history and poetry to produce a bloody modern mythology that always approaches the Old Testament in its potency. Gay has an encyclopedic knowledge of McCarthy, as he does of Faulkner, Wolfe, and O’Connor: he can recall scenes and sentences as easily as he can the names of his children. In the early 1970s, before relocating to New Mexico (and long before the globe knew of his genius), McCarthy lived in Knoxville, Tennessee. Staggered by those early novels—The Orchard Keeper (1965), Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1978)—Gay fanned through a phonebook one afternoon and discovered that McCarthy’s number was there waiting for him to dial it. McCarthy had no interest in expounding on his own work, but as soon as Gay mentioned Flannery O’Connor, McCarthy perked up and was delighted to talk. They three together shared in their work a violent vision of a postlapsarian South. They spoke by phone for a year and McCarthy corresponded with Gay about the younger writer’s stories; it was the only feedback available for an isolated upstart.
Gay maintains that in the 1970s the world of literature seemed to him controlled by ivory towers strewn from Boston to Manhattan. Barry Hannah was the first Southern scribe of Gay’s generation to be taken seriously. The publishing Mecca’s ostensible disinterest in new Southern voices—a mystery as profound as quantum mechanics considering that the Great American Novel, Huckleberry Finn, is a Southern story—coupled with Gay’s remoteness from anything even resembling a coterie of writers, made for dim prospects. He forged on just the same, teaching himself the craft, reading and revising, sending stories out to magazines and journals when he felt ready (one publication returned his handwritten manuscript with a note insisting on typed material only). Then, in the 1990s, two books incited a reevaluation of Gay’s region and material: Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (1992) and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997). The tremendous success of those novels shifted Gay’s luck: “Things got easier for me after that.”
In composing The Long Home, Gay flushed McCarthy’s stylistic dazzle from his system: “That language and those metaphors were all backed up in me. I just let it loose.” By the time Gay sat down to compose Provinces of Night, the orgasmic splendor of language via McCarthy had spent itself (although the title comes from McCarthy’s Child of God: “Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them”). Gay lighted on a soberer style, yet one recognizably from the same hand that penned The Long Home. The novel divulges the lives of three generations of Bloodworth men from Ackerman’s Field, Tennessee. The district in which they live has been slated for inundation in a dam-building project, and those imminent floodwaters hover over the narrative like God’s promise of annihilation. When E.F. Bloodworth returns home after thirty years on the road playing banjo and hiding from his crime of killing a deputy, long-dead sentiments and scores will be resurrected. He is another of Gay’s clever, irascible old timers: from Oliver in The Long Home to Meecham in the story “I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down” to Scribner in the story “Those Deep Elm Brown’s Ferry Blues.” No one matches Gay’s expertise for unforgettable old men.
Of E.F.’s three sons, only Brady remains in Ackerman’s Field; he cares for his demented mother and practices voodoo against deserving enemies. Warren, alcoholic and lecherous, resides over the state line in Alabama. Boyd has left town for Detroit to trail his faithless wife and her lover. As in The Long Home, the twin heroes of this novel are the old man and the teenage boy, E.F.’s grandson Fleming—Boyd’s sovereign son—an aspiring story writer and one of Gay’s most compassionate creations. Provinces of Night includes no archetypal evildoer like Dallas Hardin, but the vixen-heroine is present in the form of Raven Lee Halfacre, a cagey wit at sixteen years old. Her heat snags Fleming in a net of longing; she smells of possibility, of liberation. The relationships Fleming shares with Raven, his grandfather E.F., and his close friend Junior Albright—an endearing jester who illuminates every room he walks into—allow this novel a pouring forth of affection. The hostility of Gay’s universe has not diminished—there is a storm of blood when Boyd finally uncovers his wife and her lover in Detroit, and E.F. too comes to an untidy end—but in Provinces of Night Gay has tempered the brutality with tenderness. Here he has surpassed O’Connor; you will not come upon many moments of tenderness in her blazing Georgia. Her sanctimonious one-armed conmen, atheistic one-legged damsels, and half-naked children who crawl from the forest filthy and starved for destruction like fairy-devils: for them tenderness is but a rumor, the unicorn of her God-forsaken netherworld.
And then there’s the comedy in this novel. Of all of Gay’s people, Fleming comes closest to approaching the character of Nick Adams—his civility, moral code, grace under pressure, desire to write, and distressed union with his father—but Fleming differs from Nick (and from so many of the denizens of the worlds of O’Connor and McCarthy) in his appreciation of humor. Kingsley Amis once remarked that “the rewards of being sane are not many, but knowing what’s funny is one of them,” and Fleming is nothing if not sane, especially when compared to his volatile parents and his witchdoctor of an uncle, Brady. At one point Fleming’s uncle Warren jars him awake in the middle of the night to chauffeur him and his sex-scented drunk accountant over the state line because Warren himself is too intoxicated to know north from south. Fleming says:
“I don’t have a driver’s license.”
“I’m drivin on a revolted, a revoked driver’s license myself and if they catch me it’s my ass. I’ll pay your fine if you get caught. You’re not drunk are you?”
“That’s a start then. You furnish the sobriety and I’ll furnish the car and the money and we might just get organized here.”
“What about the accountant?”
“Well, yeah, I’m furnishin her too.”
The drunk accountant wants a hamburger, Warren can’t remember where he aims to go, and Fleming doesn’t make a congenial match with an automobile. They find themselves stalled in the scrub.
“Now you’re catchin on,” Warren said. “This flat black thing, I think that’s what we’re supposed to be drivin on. Those woods and shit, I believe I’d just try to stay out of them as much as I could.”
“We turned over in the woods three or four times,” the woman said in an awed voice.
Fleming slid his hands under his thighs to halt their shaking. “We never turned over,” he said.
“The hell we didn’t,” she said. “You blackhearted little liar. You tried to kill us. We turned over three or four times in the bushes and I seen every bit of it through the glass. I’m wet all over myself and I ain’t ridin with you crazy sons of bitches one foot more.”
Twelve pages of riotous humor, with Fleming exasperated by the silliness of the circumstances, this car scene reveals Gay’s almost Cervantean facility for the coalescence of tragedy and comedy.
To those who know only The Long Home and “The Paperhanger,” Gay’s humor in Provinces of Night might seem uncharacteristic, but comedic play has been his staple all along. Most of the stories in I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down are distinctive precisely because Gay can bend types, can marry heartbreak to hilarity in a single paragraph. Gay claims to have been influenced by the humor of Harry Crews, but Crews’s comedy is almost entirely satirical, as in the Night-of-the-Living-Dead finale to his novel Celebration, or his mockery of muscle-heads in Body. Satire has the heavy but playful hand of fabrication, while Gay’s humor always touches softly, always stems from characters behaving believably in unexpected quandaries. In the title story of Gay’s collection, Meecham has fled from an old age community and returns home to discover that his son has rented his house to an insolent redneck named Choat who will not budge. Meecham handles this predicament as only an obstinate, iconoclastic eighty-year-old can: he irritates Choat to no end. (The film version of this story stars Hal Holbrook as Meecham.) In “Bonedaddy, Quincy Nell, and the Fifteen Thousand BTU Electric Chair,” the sixteen-year-old Quincy Nell makes it her life’s ambition to acquire for a husband Bonedaddy Bowers, a Tennessee Casanova who has a difficult time domesticating. When she finally relents and allows Bonedaddy what he’s been scratching after, “came then hot honeysuckle nights of eros.” Bonedaddy gives Quincy Nell a stuffed panda, but then takes another girl to a dance: Quincy Nell “beheaded the panda with a single-edge razor and set the truncate corpse on the bureau, poor piebald panda with its jaunty air of yard-sale innocence.” By story’s end, Bonedaddy Bowers will wish he had never toyed with the virginal allure of Quincy Nell Qualls.
In The Long Home women are merely wagers in a gory contest for masculine dominance, but in Provinces of Night and most of the stories, the women are shrewd operators who see men as the bumbling brutes they are. Fleming’s grandmother tells him, “If sense was gunpowder ever one of you men put together wouldn’t have enough to load a round of birdshot.” Raven Lee informs Fleming, “You men are always breaking things you don’t know how to fix.” In “Crossroad Blues,” when a grotesque little man teleported from O’Connor Country tells the main character that “a woman’ll warp your mind worse than whiskey,” he says it in admiration, as if he were contemplating gamma rays from a supernova. Gay’s story “The Lightpainter” begins: “Jenny’s mother once shot her husband in the thigh with a small-caliber pistol.” The demonstrable logic in Gay’s world is simple: if a man behaves himself and treats a woman with courtesy and compassion, that man will not have his will crushed on the righteous anvil of femininity. Raven Lee Halfacre arrives as Fleming’s deliverance, not his demise; and Fleming deserves this deliverance because his kindness has earned it.
Fleming Bloodworth’s fight is against his testosteroned family, not a female. In Provinces of Night, the central struggle announces itself in the family name: what, exactly, is blood worth? What does one owe to family members, and for how long? In Twilight, the protagonist’s sister offers him this on family: “Once you’re in one, you’re in it for life. You can’t turn away from blood.” Gay’s great theme throughout his work is not men against women and the agones of that competition, but a Homeric man-against-man and the life or death outcome of that battle. His story “Charting the Territories of the Red” (published in The Southern Review in 2001)—about an Achilles-like brawler who cannot let pass a slight about his wife—culminates on a riverbank in a mess of brain matter, blood soaked into the soil as into the sands of Ilium.
Twilight is the crown of Gay’s oeuvre, a taut sweat-inducing thriller so horrifying both John le Carré and Stephen King should rethink their enterprises and revise their blueprints. The storytelling sets a new standard for darkness and depravity. You will find no humor here; like Oedipus Rex, the novel is so unrelenting in its sinister vision that any hope of light or comedy gets sucked back into the story as if by a black hole. The year is 1951 and the two killers of the novel, Fenton Breece and Granville Sutter, are every bit as psychopathic as McCarthy’s Lester Ballard (Child of God) and Anton Chigurh (No Country For Old Men). Their diabolism and nihilistic designs sink so far beneath the everyday evil of men that they make Dallas Hardin look like Saint Peter; what’s more, they make God look like an inebriated lunatic who holds stock in carnage, “some baleful god remonstrating with a world he’d created that would not do his bidding.”
Fenton Breece—a corpulent, wealthy undertaker and necrophile who quotes Auden and listens to Mahler—surgically desecrates the bodies of the dead before interring them. He removes genitalia or positions men and women in sexual congress within the same casket, “arm in arm in eternal debauchery.” In some instances he does not inter them at all, but rather stores them for his carnal bliss, dressing them in lingerie and snapping photos of his copulation with them. When the siblings Kenneth and Corrie Tyler suspect Breece’s deeds—Breece violated their father’s body—they unearth several caskets in the cemetery and discover for themselves the heinous mutilation: they sit “cataloguing these forbidden exhibits. From a carnival freakshow wended here from the windy reaches of dementia praecox. He hadn’t known there were perversions this dark, souls this twisted.” Kenneth spies on the undertaker, manages to thieve a briefcase containing photos of him with dead women, and then Corrie attempts to blackmail Breece for fifteen grand.
Enter Granville Sutter, a merciless murderer who at one point in the novel uses a switchblade to slaughter an entire family: mother, father, daughter, sons, even the dog. Breece hires Sutter to persuade the Tylers to return his property, and when the siblings refuse, Sutter causes Corrie’s death in a truck crash and then pursues Kenneth Tyler through the wintered wilderness like an iniquitous hound. While Fenton Breece has his way with Corrie’s corpse, the cat-and-mouse competition between Tyler and Sutter reaches deep into a gelid wasteland inimical to life.
As in all of Gay’s fiction, the weather and the landscape become characters of their own, except that his Wordsworthian nexus to nature becomes the worship not of God’s presence in the natural world, but rather the worship of nature’s lethiferous command over human life. Gay’s nature swirls in the same Tennessee towns: Ackerman’s Field, Centre, Clifton, and a mostly uninhabited expanse of unkind, fabled forest called the Harrikin, the very ex-mining land into which Tyler and Sutter plunge headlong and hell-bent. Tyler
thought he must have crossed some unmarked border that put him into territories in the land of Nod beyond the pale where folks would shun him for the mark laid on him to show that he’d breeched the boundaries of conduct itself and that he’d passed through doors that had closed softly behind him and only opened from the other side of the pale and that he’d gone down footpaths into wilderness that was forever greener and more rampant and ended up someplace you can’t get back from.
The Harrikin seems imagined into being by the Grimm brothers. Tyler comes upon a witch who stirs potions and an old man with a shotgun who sits vigil in his dilapidated shack. The boy’s desperation, hunger, and shivering soaked body are palpable on the page. He attempts to pass through the Harrikin to locate the high sheriff in Ackerman’s Field in hope of finding rescue from Sutter, but the landscape and its deranged tenants will not yield:
He figured somewhere in these territories there was an enormous madhouse whose keeper had thrown up his hands in disgusted defeat and flung wide the portals so these twisted folk could descend like locusts on the countryside.
Gay might not appear at first glance to share O’Connor’s preoccupation with religion, but every novelist with Gay’s mythic, dramatic vision is religious in his own way. Gay’s language owes much to the Pentecostal South and the Christianized folklore of his region, allusions and metaphors that Gay—and his characters—could not help absorbing. By novel’s end, both Sutter and Breece will be smote by angry angels of the earth, but not before they have brought brimstone to this patch of Tennessee. Twilight is one of the most intrepid American novels ever written, absolutely audacious in its confrontation with hell on earth, as terrifying as medieval torture: “It is true this world holds mysteries you do not want to know. Visions that would steal the very light from your eyes and leave them sightless.”
Some of the important Southern writers who have come before Gay—Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Walker Percy—seem timid in comparison to Gay and his nightmarish depictions. As a reader Gay never took to Taylor or Percy; the gentility of Southern aristocracy could not communicate with his experience, and the white collar writers of the New South were not gritty enough for what he knew of the human animal. The writer Tom Franklin, a dear friend to Gay, tells a story about how Gay was so poor when he was a youth that he had to mix water with crushed walnut shells in order to make ink. Gay admits that the family couldn’t afford a car when he was growing up, but he doesn’t boast of poverty. The writer with unflinching portrayals of human cruelty in his fiction is in life a mild and dignified man. Franklin speaks of his “purity,” his indifference to celebrity and the hurly-burly of New York publishing. For such an astoundingly natural talent, Gay can sometimes sound surprised that he’s a writer and that he’s been able to earn a living from his work for the past decade.
Surprised or not, Gay continues to beget stories and novels that help splinter the early twentieth century fairytale of an Edenic South, that shear humankind down to the bone to lay bare the original sin and the sporadic warmth beating beneath our ribs, and for that you should thank whichever god you call your own.
This essay was originally published in The Southern Review in 2008.