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Mon December 2, 2013

Wittgenstein’s Lolita: Short Stories from William Gay

Wittgenstein’s Lolita: Short Stories from William Gay

Wittgenstein’s Lolita: Short Stories from William Gay”

Author: William Gay

Publisher: Wild Dog Press

Pages: 64

Price: $10.00 (Paper)

Bursting onto the Southern literary scene in 1998 at the age of 55 with, first, stories and then the novel “The Long Home,” William Gay published four books, three novels and the story collection “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down.”

Readers and critics were astonished. Here was a writer with the power of William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, Flannery O’Connor, and nobody had ever heard of Gay. For 40 years he had been working in construction and reading and writing in seclusion in Hohenwald, Tennessee.

Suddenly his work was everywhere.

Magazines and story collections vied for it and committees were lining up to give him prizes: The William Peden Award, the James A. Michener Memorial Prize and then a Guggenheim.

On February 23, 2012, Gay died.

Recently this little book of two short stories has surfaced, published by an unknown press, Wild Dog, in Brush Creek, Tennessee.

Both these stories have the poetic lyricism and the dark force readers came to associate with Gay’s fiction.

In “Wittgenstein’s Lolita,” a McCarthy-esque story, the protagonist, Rideout, lives alone in a cabin in the woods. His wife has died violently. He was suspected, but cleared.

Now Rideout’s dog is missing and he walks through black woods to a neighbor’s place to enquire and meets Rebekah Faust, with long red hair “that caught the light like hammermarks in soft copper. “Rebekah has “a fading bruise at the corner of her left eye. Cerise where it began and fading to the faintest of blue above her cheek bone.”

Albert, Rebekah’s husband, when he returns from working on Mississippi river barges, beats her, “reappearing with his sudden gifts of violence like souvenirs he’d picked up in these exotic ports of call.”

Rideout and the reader know she, Faust, is Trouble, to be avoided, not to be entered into a bargain with. She is attractive; his loneliness is so profound he has trouble communicating: “Conversation was a burden of such weight that he could still pick it up but he couldn’t carry it very far.”

She is unusual, singular, a self-described poet, with “worn and tattered” cartons of her poems, vanity press volumes, unsold of course, stored in a back room.

Rebekah is a romantic, intense, looking for love and escape from Albert. She tells Rideout she wants “Somebody who loves you so much they just won’t ever quit on you. Absolutely no ambivalence.” She wants a man who would follow her to the grave and into it and back.

As the story ends, Rideout must to decide whether he is that lover.

“The Iceman” is a short comic gem, reminiscent of “As I Lay Dying.”

The narrator, Yates, hitches a ride on an ice delivery truck with a very hung-over iceman, so drunk the night before he had blacked out.

Farce ensues. The truck sideswipes a farmer with his wagon and team of mules and careens down a mountainside backwards. Yates is unhurt and leaving when the iceman remembers that the night before at a dance he killed somebody. “I remember she kept trying to crawl off in the bushes. I kept hitting her and hitting her.”

Gay’s stories of a fallen world astonish readers. One hopes more of his unpublished work will surface.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”

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