“Fugitives of the Heart,” by William Gay

William Gay

Reviewed by Dawn Major

Fugitives of the Heart was found in the attic of a hand-built house where William Gay raised his kids. I had the opportunity to assist editing this lost work and am so pleased fans of Gay will finally have the chance to read his last novel, Fugitives of the Heart, which is being published this summer, by Livingston Press, University of West Alabama. It’s full of what fans of Gay love about his prose—his dark poetic language and supernatural imagery, the town of Ackerman’s Field, his haunted forest, the Harrikin, as well as the roughnecks that often reside in his narratives.

Young protagonist Marian Yates doesn’t have much of a chance with the parents he’s been allotted in life. His dad is killed for poaching and his mom is an ailing prostitute and is anything but maternal. She eventually departs the world, leaving Yates orphaned and homeless in rural Tennessee. Yates is a sneakthief, a scavenger, a wanderer, but he’s also a deep thinker and attuned to nature. He’s more at home in the Harrikin than in a warm bed with a roof over his head. Yates loves Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which was Gay’s inspiration for this novel. He spends a short time with the Widow Paiton, who introduces him to Twain. Yates, so compelled by the Twain’s words and the adventures, he sneaks in during the day, devouring chapters that had been denied him at night: he read about “Jim and Huck in the flux on the sun-rimpled Mississippi. He could almost smell the hot torpor of the river, seeing the country sliding past, until he was hopelessly snared by Twain.” These passages truly make you see Yates for the innocent he is, despite being thrown into a den of wolves.

Yates’s prized possession is a pocketknife that his friend Black Crowe helped him acquire from Dow Cook’s general store. This negotiation is the inciting incident. Gay followed Anton Chekhov’s theory—essentially, if you write a gun into the first act of a play, it must be fired in the second act. Of course, in Fugitives of the Heart the gun is replaced with a pocketknife. Yates is in love with a girl out of his league who has a bootlegging granny who despises him. Every day is an adventure from hopping box cars heading to Ackerman’s Field to catch the circus, sneaking under the cover of night to beat up the antagonist, Swain, who’s been visiting his mother’s bed, surviving a road trip with a mad iceman (some will recognize the short story, “The Iceman,” which is part of this novel), to saving Black Crowe from a lynch mob and ultimately facing one of life’s toughest lessons—betrayal.

Fugitives of the Heart has all the favorite settings that fans of Gay will recognize. The novel is set in Allen’s Creek, a failing mining town, more rural and backwoods than the small town of Ackerman’s Field, which feels like a city to Yates. But Allen’s Creek has everything Yates needs: Dow Cook’s General where men gather to sip whiskey and play cards, and the Muledick Saloon—the name says it all—where Yate’s love interest, Cassie resides. Yates discovers a cave while wandering the Harrikin, and the dark imagery Gay captures here is the darkest yet in his entire body of work. To give you a sample, here is passage from when Yates is inside the cave:

The dark seemed an unreckonable enormity as if this lightless and watery firmament was an antiworld of perpetual night couched below a world hollowed and filled with water, a globe fissured and striated with hairline cracks that threatened to inundate him, to drown him in a black and soundless tidal surge down these inkblack corridors to he knew not where.

Reading this passage, I am reminded of the poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen, and his song, “You Want It Darker?” Gay’s prose often reminds me of poetry or lyrics, though—a word magician in his own right.

Gay’s classic archetypal characters—the orphan, the villain, the explorer, the sage, the maiden—are present in the novel. Gay turns Jungian archetypes upside down and inside out. Case in point, Black Crowe, starts out as the caregiver and teacher to Yates, but when survival mode kicks in at the end, Crowe quickly turns into a villain and trickster, betraying the one person who had his back.

Fugitives of the Heart is somewhat reminiscent of Child of God by Cormac McCarthy. It has a similar rural Tennessee setting, and both protagonists live in underground caves and are rejected by society. The similarity ends there though; Yates is no murderer or necrophiliac. Yates’s soul may tetter on the edge of damnation, but ultimately, he has compassion for his fellow humanity and the creatures of the Earth and practices a type of homegrown earth-based religion. There’s an innocence that remains in Yates even when he sinks to his lowest points in life, literally and figuratively.

Gay was an episodic writer, which works well with Fugitives of the Heart—a quintessential coming-of-age novel like its inspiration, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Since Twain’s novel reverberated with Yates, it’s not a stretch to imagine Yates viewing himself as Huck and Black Crowe as Jim. Yates doesn’t travel down a river; instead he journeys through the Harrikin and around Allen’s Creek and Ackerman’s Field for the Mississippi River. Interestingly, Gay sets the Tennessee River in the town of Ackerman’s Field. This is unusual, and readers of Gay’s works may be surprised to find the Tennessee River flowing through Ackerman’s Field. Perhaps, Gay did this to mirror Yates’s adventures with Huck Finn’s adventures—a nod to Mark Twain.

Some readers still may find Gay’s narrative leaps jarring. Episodic writers tend to write a series of scenes that are self-contained. Most of Gay’s protagonists are young males or males on the brink of adulthood who seek out adventure and find themselves in predicaments. Stylistically, this is the method Gay has used with all his writing when the main character is a young man. Writing a series of events, experiences, adventures, mayhem, strange occurrences, even instances of boredom episodically makes sense for Gay’s male protagonist and especially for a young Yates who undergoes early trauma and from there must negotiate life with almost zero guidance. It’s easy to imagine that a teenager who is living hand to mouth lives in the moment. Yates doesn’t consider the future; he doesn’t think much beyond his immediate survival or pleasure and comfort. So, narrative leaps are actually more attune to how a young man in this world would think and operate.

If you are a speculative fiction reader, Fugitives of the Heart, like all of Gay’s works, has its ghosts and witches. Gay was known to genre-bend and wrote one horror novel, Little Sister Death, but all his works contain an undercurrent of magic. It’s not full fantasy, but without a doubt reality is distorted with the appearance of ghosts and characters you would find in dark fairytales. Old Granny Stovall is described as a witch and her child as “some dread troll or dwarf.” The witch is an archetypal character in Gay’s fiction. Kenneth Tyler from Gay’s novel Twilight encounters a granny wife while traversing the Harrikin. Granny wives were midwives and spiritual healers who practiced herbalism and foraging and were the closest thing to medical care in Appalachia where hospitals were far away and largely distrusted. Gay has spoken and written about his Uncle Scott, who was famous for having the gift of second sight. It’s not surprising that Gay’s characters in Fugitives of the Heart are superstitious, and though generally Christians, still held on to remnants of Scottish and Irish folk magic and Native American beliefs.

Aside from the main narrative, the introduction was written by Sonny Brewer, a fellow writer and a friend of Gay’s, and the postscript was written by the lead archivist, J. M. White. Locating and assembling Gay’s written works and paintings has been an act of love completed by friends and family who understand the importance of his work and strive to keep his name present. The image on the cover of Fugitives of the Heart—an image Gay painted—is of a dilapidated barn and is indicative of many of the images Gay painted and captured in his prose. Gay was an avid painter and hoped to use his paintings as the image for his covers, but some of the larger publishers didn’t go for that. It’s been the mission of the current team working to publish and advocate for Gay to also ensure his images make it in onto his book covers. In addition to getting some stunning prose, readers will also get a piece of Gay’s artwork with this novel.

As a fiction writer, Gay plunges into the darkest corners of the human condition. His words take your breath away. The die-hard fans of Gay can tell you their favorite passages and quotes because his words stick with you; they haunt you. And Fugitives of the Heart will stick with you, too, long after you’ve put the book down.

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  1. jefflung says

    Dawn, I enjoyed reading your review of “Fugitives of the Heart”. I found it very well written and very informative. I am not familiar with Mr. Gay’s works, but after reading your review it sounds like a book I might be interested in reading. Keep up the great work.

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