Mon November 20, 2006
Gay, like Faulkner, usually writes of his own postage stamp of land, rarely straying far. And Gay tends to set his work in the Tennessee of the forties and fifties, a Tennessee of dirt roads, considerable isolation, and insulation from outside influences.
By Don Noble
William Gay, of Hohenwald, Tennessee, graduated from high school in the middle sixties, served in the US Navy, lived for a time in New York City and Chicago, and then returned to his home place, between Nashville and the Alabama border. For almost thirty years, he earned a living as a carpenter and dry waller, read incessantly, and taught himself to write fiction. Since his teen years he had been intoxicated by the prose of Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and, later, Cormac McCarthy.
Gay honed his craft and then came 1998, the annis mirabilis. Stories were accepted in The Georgia Review and the Missouri Review and then everywhere. These have been collected in I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002). He also published two novels, The Long Home (1999) and Provinces of Night (2000). For The Long Home, Gay won the William Peden Award, the James Michener Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Gay, like Faulkner, usually writes of his own postage stamp of land, rarely straying far. And Gay tends to set his work in the Tennessee of the forties and fifties, a Tennessee of dirt roads, considerable isolation, and insulation from outside influences. It was a time of community, where people knew one another and were dependent on one another, for good or for evil.
Although there is some rough humor in Gay, of the "Spotted Horses" variety, mostly his fiction is an exploration of evil in its infinite variety, with satanic, icy villains.
In Twilight, the action is simple enough. Fenton Breece is a pervert and an undertaker. He is the sickest of puppies. Whatever you, at this moment, can possibly imagine a psychotic undertaker doing to the bodies of the dead in the privacy of his professional parlors, Fenton Breece does that, and more, and takes Polaroid pictures of all of it.
Teenage brother and sister Corrie and Kenneth Tyler learn of Breece's grotesque practices and come into possession of the pictures. Rather than turning them over to the sheriff, however, they make the genuinely tragic error of blackmailing Breece, who hires a cold-blooded killer, Granville Sutter, to get the photos back by any means necessary.
Breece, Gay tells us, was born bent. "He used to get dead animals off the side of the road and play like he was embalming em. . . . If he couldn't find none . . . he took to killin em hisself. Strangle em. There for a while he was hell on the neighborhood cat population."
Granville Sutter is another matter. Sutter is a psychopath, without feeling, conscience, remorse, limits, humanity, decency of any kind. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, Sutter can even disguise himself, at one point convincingly portraying an old lady.
The Tylers flee from Sutter, but the devil is implacable. Kenneth Tyler flees into the Harrikin, a two-hundred-square-mile patch of forest, once laced with mines and mills but now abandoned and, it seems, cursed. It is a state of nature, but nature destroyed and ruined, an anti-Rousseau vision, peopled mainly by ignoble savages. There is no food, no law, no civilization, and humans are reduced to a Hobbesian struggle of claw and fang.
Sutter, who we learn had a terrible childhood, has always been a bully who pressed and pressed and would do anything: burn down your house, poison your cattle, kill your children, until, finally, someone is willing to stand up to him. Sutter chases Kenneth Tyler until Tyler, the hunted, out of desperation, stands and fights.
Gay's world is a harsh one, elemental and unforgiving. His language, though, is the English of angels. The dialogue is pure, accurate "country," but the narrative voice works at the level of Faulkner, in complicated syntax and a vocabulary that would send you to your dictionary except that contextually, in this battle royal between the agents of evil and the community around them, the message and meaning are really very clear.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.