When I read William Gay’s first novel, The Long Home, recently, I had the strong feeling that I had discovered the work of someone very special – and reading Provinces of Night has confirmed that for me. Gay writes with a carefully and languidly – the breadth and depth of his writing demands full attention from the reader, and the rewards are great indeed.The above-mentioned languid quality of his work does not for a single moment indicate any sort of laziness on his part – writing this good can, of course, come from the foundation of a natural talent, but it takes hard and diligent work to come up with a finished product of this quality. Gay’s characters are vivid and real, and they are built up slowly – the reader is required to get to know them, rather than having them dumped off the page and into their lap. His descriptive abilities are astonishing as well – if there isn’t a word that suits the image he’s trying to get across, he’s not above combining existing words into a single unit, and he does so with taste, style and intelligence. There are no cheap, easy gimmicks at work here – just talent and imagination.
Set in the same small rural Tennessee town in which his earlier novel takes place – but in the 1950s this time, as opposed to the 1940s – Gay captures the setting and characters with absolute perfection. His country folk are depicted honestly – they are uneducated, to be sure, and some of them are certainly not the brightest match in the box, but he treats them with respect. They come across as honest and real – the figures of speech they employ might seem odd to city dwellers, and their knowledge of the world outside of their area ranges from non-existent to a shadowy grey awareness that is tempered liberally with misinformation and rumor. They look upon outsiders with doubt and suspicion – and usually for good reason.
The relationship that develops over the course of the story between E. W. Bloodworth – an elderly man who left the area, his wife and family, many years before – and his grandson Fleming, whom he has never seen is one of the most touching depictions I’ve come across in some time, without ever venturing anywhere near the maudlin. The Bloodworth clan – and their neighbors and acquaintances – are a pretty rough-hewn lot. They number among their members bootleggers, drunks, hell-raisers, stand-by-your-man women and I-ain’t-takin-any-more-of-your-BS women. Fleming is a pretty intelligent – if uneducated – young man, and he is instantly attracted to his grandfather’s personality and stories of his life. E. F. is a banjo player and singer, a collector of old tunes – mostly blues. His fame actually spread to the point of a record label recording eight of his songs – but he never chose to pursue music as a career. It simply meant too much to him.
When E. F. decides to return home after many years away, he stirs the stew of a lot of family members and other locals – he’s not exactly welcomed back by everyone with open arms. One of his sons, in particular, Brady, is downright hostile. Brady is quite a piece of work himself, living with his elderly mother (E. F.’s wife) and casting spells and hexes on any and all who cross him. He’s looked upon by the locals as a bit of a curiosity and a crackpot – but at the same time, with enough trepidation that they try not to wind up on his bad side.
There’s a whole cast of memorable characters here – and a main plot with several related subplots that whirl and eddy around each other like currents in a stream. Definitely enough to keep the reader involved and interested. William Gay is a writer of amazing talent and patience – if you’re a fan of well-written, compelling fiction that contains emotion as well as a gentle dose of humor now and then, you owe it to yourself to check out his work. My next stop is his short story collection, I Hate to See That Evening Sun go Down.
Book Review by Larry L. Looney