Nationality: American. Born: Hohenwald, Tennessee, 1943 or 1944 Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1960s. Family: Divorced; four children. Career: Worked variously as television tube assembly line worker, post-hole digger, roofer, painter, bricklayer, drywall hanger, and carpenter. Lives in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Awards: William Peden prize (Missouri Review ). Agent: Amy Williams, New York, New York, U.S.A.
The Long Home. Denver, MacMurray & Beck, 1999.
Provinces of Night. New York, Doubleday, 2001.* * *
After two novels and a handful of short stories, William Gay has emerged as one of the most important new Southern voices in American literature. However, the word "new" must be taken in context. Although The Long Home and Provinces of Night appeared recently in rapid succession, they are the mature works of a mature man who has spent a lifetime honing his craft.
Set in and around the small rural Tennessee town of Ackerman's Field during the early 1940s, The Long Home weaves in and out of a large cast of characters but centers on the relationships among four main figures: Nathan Weiner, a young carpenter still marked by the disappearance of his father; Dallas Hardin, the bootlegger who, unknown to Nathan, murdered Nathan's father; William Tell Oliver, an older man who befriends and mentors Nathan; and Amber Rose, the daughter of Hardin's mistress who is pursued by both Hardin and Weiner. Provinces of Night returns to Ackerman's Field in 1952 to tell the story of E.F. Bloodworth, a gifted but violent man who returns home late in life to make his peace with the town and the family he deserted twenty years earlier. Although he cannot mend his relationships with his three grown sons, he establishes a strong bond with his grandson Fleming, an aspiring young writer.
Such quick summaries do not, of course, begin to convey the richness and complexity of these novels. While Gay's work has been compared to such late twentieth-century Southern writers as Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, and Cormac McCarthy (whose Child of God provides an epigraph and title for Provinces of Night ), it is William Faulkner who most strongly informs these two novels, and both books bear up well under the burden of such a comparison. Through remarkable talent and, seemingly, sheer force of will, Gay has taken the potentially exhausted material of the Faulknerian South—the rhetorically dense narrative of the rural Southern poor—and reworked it into something immediately recognizable yet undeniably his own. Gay's characters are as timeless and elemental in their passions as Faulkner's; however, theirs is not an enduring world, but a landscape subject to cracks, ruptures, and nearly inexpressible changes. The Long Home begins with an earthquake that leaves both a literal and metaphorical crack in the world; Provinces of Night concludes with the Bloodworth land disappearing under the waters of a TVA project. As Fleming muses near the end of Provinces of Night, "the world had little of comfort or assurance …. there were no givens, no map through the maze …. Life blindsides you so hard you can taste the bright copper blood in your mouth then it beguiles you with a gift of profound and appalling beauty."
The residents of Ackerman's Field confront these changes with varying degrees of success, failure, bravery, cowardice, violence, and humor, and they do so within stories remarkable for their simultaneous density of detail, clarity of narrative, and seriousness of intent. As Tony Earley correctly observed in the New York Times, "Gay is unafraid to tackle the biggest of the big themes, nor does he shy away from the grand gesture that makes those themes manifest." His first two novels are grand gestures indeed.
—F. Brett Cox