Tuesday, June 24, 2008

William Gay, "The Long Home" (1999).

As I predicted in this blog about a month ago, I have eagerly devoured another heaping portion of Southern Gothic by the talented writer William Gay. This time I chose to read his very first book, The Long Home. As I've previously mentioned, this was the first novel that Gay published after toiling in obscurity for almost forty years. Not only did it garner prizes and critical acclaim, but it ensured that the author would have additional opportunities to access a greater audience. While it's a bit of a shame he's not better-known, I feel privileged to have come across his work. I made no secret of the fact that I was impressed by Provinces of Night, and I'm happy to report that his earlier title stood up to the standard of excellence that I expected.

The Long Home begins with an enigmatic event of great magnitude- a backwoods bootlegger named Hovington is almost swallowed up by a cataclysmic pit that spontaneously forms on his land. Soon after, his homestead is invaded by a darkly malevolent character named Dallas Hardin. This interloper takes advantages of Hovington's rather steady deterioration, moving in on not just the whiskey business, but on the man's wife as well. As the original master slowly fades, Hardin consolidates his power over both the household and the community. He begins to build a small empire of vice and will let nothing and/or no man stand in his way. Even Hovington's beautiful young daughter is held in his power.

That's particularly disconcerting to young Nathan Winer. This seventeen-year-old man has already had his share of misfortune. His father disappeared ten years ago, and his bitter mother suspects that she has been intentionally abandoned. Nathan is put off by her harsh recriminations of her long lost husband, and secretly believes that his Dad met a far worse fate than escaping his shrill harpy of a wife. But there's not much that young Winer can do about any of this. The only paternal guidance he gets is from an elderly neighbor who lives and works on a nearby plot of land. William Tell Oliver has been around a long time, and understands local secrets that he'd rather shunt aside. Still he cares a lot for Winer.

Despite the mild warnings that Oliver delivers to the boy, Winer decides to take Dallas Hardin up on an offer for a job. Hardin is expanding his operation with a large honkytonk, and he needs someone that can help with its construction. When the head carpenter on the project gets caught with his figurative pants down, Hardin decides to let Winer take his place. Even though Nathan has no formal training, he is confident that carpentry is in his blood (his father worked the trade). With a contrary resolve to mind his own business, Winer is brought inextricably into the gritty demimonde of a truly villainous character. Hardin is both devious and determined, and thinks little of destroying life for his own gain.

When Winer falls for Amber Rose Hovington (the orphaned teen who Hardin has "adopted" as his own), a brooding storm threatens to erupt. Secrets and betrayals are exchanged, and all the story's players assume their tragic roles. The violent consequences strike the reader with such force that one can only wonder whether they can be redemptive, or if they merely underscore the essential bleakness of the boneyard of life. Gay has struck a few deep chords of humor into his tale, but one suspects that they are only meant to serve as the sugar that helps the bitter medicine go down. There is a deep despair underlying the beautifully evocative descriptions in Gay's prose. I can only hope that he remains productive in his late years.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous petra said...

I'm reading William Gay right now--I'm about halfway through "Twilight" [2006]and liking it. Do you know Joel Peter Witkin's photographs, the tableaux he did of dead people in a morgue in Mexico?

I first got into William Gay through his short fiction. If you haven't read the 13 stories in "I Hate to See that Evening Sun Go Down" [2002], I recommend it. Not sure if the title is a nod to Faulkner's story, "That Evening Sun Go Down".

The latest story of his that I read--and it blew me away--is "Where Will You Go When Your Skin Will Cannot Contain You?" It has echoes of Poe in it, Leigeia, Morella, Berenice...

And of course, there's his new novel to look forward to--"The Lost Country". It's due to come out in a few months.

Meanwhile, I'm going to revisit William Goyen [wow, lots of Southern Gothic William's!].

12:39 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Petra,

I'm glad you took the time to post a comment. I get the feeling that Gay is a bit obscure, and it's good to hear from others who enjoy reading his work. So far I've only read the two novels that I posted about on the blog. But I intend to read everything he's written eventually.

I am familiar with Witkin- I even have a little book of his photos around here somewhere, but I don't think I've seen the ones you mentioned.

I'll look into Goyen too. Thanks. Please feel free to share other recommendations.

12:09 AM  

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