Saturday, May 24, 2008

William Gay, "Provinces of Night" (2000).

In my current campaign to read some of the lesser known contemporary Southern Gothic writers, I came across the name of William Gay. Assuming that he was a new young voice in the tradition of Faulkner, McCarthy, and O'Connor, I picked up Provinces of Night with substantial expectations. In examining its jacket I spotted a blurb from Steve Yarbrough that read, "It is time to stop calling William Gay an exciting new voice. In Provinces of Night he proves that he is simply one of our finest voices." That's high praise from a fairly successful regional author, and it reinforced my preconceptions about the author. But there is a particular irony to those words, because Gay is a 65-year-old man who published his first book in 1999.

This native Tennessean has been writing short stories since 1958, but for decades he toiled in obscurity. He is a veteran of the US Navy, and served in the Vietnam War. Throughout his life he has spent time living in New York City, Chicago and Lewis County, TN. He has worked as a carpenter, drywall-hanger and painter. Gay comes from the sort of background that expects its inhabitants to eke out a working class living. His people are solidly rural and Southern, and belong to a tradition that extends backward to the first days of Reconstruction. Few of his neighbors could have expected him to eventually develop a following as an established author. But that's exactly what has happened over the last ten years.

Gay's first published novel (The Long Home) earned him the James A. Michener Memorial Prize. It also attracted the attention of Doubleday, the publisher of Provinces of Night. His second novel tells the story of several generations of the Bloodworth clan. These hardy sons of the dust refuse to be settled by their surroundings. Each generation in turn strikes out to find some elusive freedom, at once beyond and wholly determined by their inheritance. Patriarch E.F. is approaching the end of his life, and has finally slowed down enough to begin his ruminations over a misspent life. His sons are occupied with their own quests- defining their own relationships with the land and kin.

The third generation is represented by Fleming Bloodworth, an atypically cerebral teenager who is largely left to his own devices. His father (Boyd) has abandoned him in the pursuit of his wayward wife, and Fleming is alternatively repulsed and fascinated by his extended family. His aging grandmother would like to take him in, but has her hands full with keeping up with the chores and her increasingly crazy youngest son. Uncle Brady keeps a pack of feral dogs on the family property, and is not shy about offering his clairvoyance and hexing services for a fee. He is suspicious of his siblings, and displays an outright hostility for E.F. Every one of the Bloodworths is completely capable of complicating what should be honest and straightforward interactions between themselves and the world.

As if there weren't enough players filling his pages, Gay has created a large cast of peripheral characters with complicated idiosyncrasies and warped agendas of their own. Although the book is a modest 290 pages long, it manages to convey enough information so that the reader knows what these folks are about. Gay's writing style is densely evocative. His sentences are the type that may require a pause for a re-read, but the essential economy becomes clear once one processes the words. His prose is so beautifully wrought that (at times) I was overwhelmed by his sense of place. It would be easy for Gay to be intimidated by the literary heritage that informs his work, but he manages to confidently tell an entertaining and moving tale. I'll definitely be returning to his territory.

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Blogger Diane said...

This sounds like a perfect read! How wonderful to have such an insightful review. Thanks!

6:27 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

You're very welcome. Come back and tell us what you think if you read it.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Michael K. Gause said...

I'm reading this now. I'm from the backwoods of Tennessee, and the vernacular Gay employs puts a smile on my face as often as the great one-liners Boyd often shoots off.

Makes me want to take a sabbatical and cross the Mason-Dixon once again for a while and spin a tale of old Lynchburg.

Nice review.

11:29 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Thanks for the comment. Since I read this, I've read another one of his novels, and I have two more of his books waiting on my shelf. The fact that he is not better known is truly unfortunate.

9:33 PM  

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