Gay's novels rife with family drama

Tennessee novelist William Gay died in his home on Feb. 23.

Courtesy Tennessee

Tennessee novelist William Gay died in his home on Feb. 23.

 William Gay

William Gay

The son of a sharecropper who spent much of his working life in blue-collar jobs, William Gay wrote about rustic Tennessee with an inside observer's eye for local color and a hyperbolist's delight in regional idiosyncrasies.

The self-taught Gay emerged from obscurity in his late 50s with critically praised books in the Southern Gothic style. He died Feb. 23 at his log cabin in Hohenwald, southwest of Nashville.

The cause was presumed to be a heart attack, said Sonny Brewer, a friend and editor-in-chief at Gay's most recent publisher, MacAdam/Cage.

Like William Faulkner, who focused much of his oeuvre in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, Gay created a hometown for his fiercely eccentric, furiously motivated or morally challenged characters -- Ackerman's Field, Tenn. And like his acknowledged influences, Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy, he wrote stories and novels rife with tortuous family drama, events bordering on the supernatural and violence that could erupt with a flash.

"He remembered the look on the child's face," Gay wrote in "The Paperhanger," a short story about a man who killed a little girl because she had looked at him funny. The passage continued: "Spite had crossed it like a flicker of heat lightning. She stuck her tongue out at him. His hand snaked out like a serpent and closed on her throat and snapped her neck before he could call it back."

In "The Long Home," the 1999 novel that announced Gay to the reading world beyond literary journals, he created a battle between Dallas Hardin, a malevolent bootlegger, and Nathan Winer, the young carpenter Hardin hires to build a honky-tonk on the property he has taken over from its crippled owner.

In "Provinces of Night" (2000), a kind of 1950s coming-of-age story, an aspiring teenage writer finds himself alone at home -- his father has gone off to hunt down his wife's lover -- when his grandfather, a pretty good banjo player and a volatile man, returns to Ackerman's Field after an absence of decades.

"The wildness of Mr. Gay's imagination," Richard Bernstein wrote in The New York Times Book Review about "Provinces of Night," "gives this book its considerable narrative power but also makes it far-fetched, intermittently zany, something about four-fifths Faulkner with 'The Omen' filling in the rest."

And in the brazenly nightmarish "Twilight" (2006) a mortician's grisly secret -- he defiles the corpses he buries in especially macabre fashion -- is discovered by a pair of teenagers who are set upon by a psychopathic hit man the mortician hires to dispatch them.

William Elbert Gay was born in Hohenwald on Oct. 27, 1941. He spent four years in the Navy, serving in the Pacific Fleet and then passed itinerant years in places like New York and Chicago.

He was writing at night and sending stories to magazines and having them rejected. Returning to Tennessee in the late 1960s, he supported his family with construction jobs, a working life that came to an end only in the late '90s, when he sold his first short stories to literary journals.

One of them, "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down," about a man who gets out of a nursing home and returns to his farm to find someone else living there, was spotted in The Georgia Review by an agent, who took him on. "The Long Home" was published the next year.

As a figure on the literary scene, invited to writers' conferences and college campuses, he was a stranger in a strange land. "I've always felt sort of like in between things," he said. "I fit in when I was working construction. I more or less could do my job. I didn't get fired. I got paid. I could do it. ... Then, I was sort of a closet intellectual passing as a construction worker. Now, I'm a construction worker passing as an academic."

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