“Stories from the Attic” by William Gay

William Gay was a literary autodidact who was born, lived most of his life, and died in Lewis County, Tennessee. Through extensive reading and almost continuous writing, he perfected his craft to become one of the essential Southern writers of the twenty-first century. His stories are every bit as visceral as early Cormac McCarthy with the eloquence of Thomas Wolfe, both of whom he credits as heroes and mentors.

Before his death in 2012 at the age of seventy, Gay saw three of his novels published, as well as a couple of novellas and three collections of prose and short stories. But it turns out that readers had only scratched the surface of the body of work of this extraordinary author, who spent forty years or more writing in relative obscurity. Through the remarkable efforts of J. M. White and his team of scholars and writers, several more complete manuscripts and copious notes and letters have been unearthed in scattered boxes shelved in his various attics. Four novels have been posthumously published from this treasure trove, and a collection of short stories, memoirs, and novel fragments in Stories from the Attic (Dzanc Books, 2022), has just been released.

Readers of William Gay’s previous novels will likely find familiar names and, of course, familiar places contained in the short stories, memoirs, and fragmented novels—most of the short stories and memoirs are unpublished or otherwise not widely circulated, with one memoir, inspired by a tragic event in the family, where Gay changed the names. They will also be rewarded with Gay’s eloquent and often poetic descriptions that immediately throw the reader into this master storyteller’s sometimes beautiful—but often bleak—mid-century world, rife with poverty and desperation.

In “Nighttime Awakening,” a story about a hard-luck and hard-hearted loner who seems to make all the wrong decisions, Gay builds a distressed world where his anti-hero, Herschel Clay, can scratch out an existence.

“He came scrawling across the snowy winter field, dark and graceless and unloved, an interloper, a petulant child’s ink slash across a Currier and Ives winterscape…He had a closed, shut-up look about him, the look of a man too much to himself, a man on nodding terms with madness, who had only nightbirds and winter winds to keep him council.”

Gay, however, never condescends. He refuses to make fun of the people or the society he writes about. Each character has some redeeming quality, some reason for why they become the way they are. He doesn’t excuse their actions; he just tells their stories in a non-judgmental way that drops the reader into situations they could never imagine. It is easy to point at a social degenerate as someone who is distasteful. Gay’s narration peels back the soul scabs to reveal the injustice, the misery, and the pride that lead people to do horrible things.

Fiercely uncomfortable weather also plays an important role in many of Gay’s stories. As if to punctuate the desperation his characters face, he places them in almost uninhabitable conditions. In “Tidewaters Eden,” a story about yet another hard luck hard case, Gay ratchets up the tension by putting his character, Tidewater, in the worst winter conceivable.

“It was a fearfully cold winter, a winter out of old men’s tales, a winter dredged out of their very youth. He stared at the winter harshness, at the bleakness unrelieved by bird, or evergreen, or even a deerhunter’s cap: as if another ice age had descended in the long winter nights, seizing every twig in ice, skimming the highway with glass, chilling the bones with surreal cold settling first in the vitals of all humankind, hearts transpired to chunks of bloody ice and, through Tidewater’s eyes, hearth or heating stove was never enough.”

The short stories and story fragments in this collection are vintage William Gay and unequivocally Southern Gothic. From a Machiavellian police officer to a small-time hustler with a makeshift corncob prosthetic to a vengeful old woman’s ghastly pickling skills to sins that traverse multiple generations, Gay weaves his gritty tales around a cast of very real yet borderline supernatural residents of his legendary Tennessee landscape.

In the memoir section of the collection, William Gay’s personal life is revealed to be every bit as captivating as his fictional stories. Readers get a glimpse of what meant most to Gay: his family and his art. “The Wreck on the Highway” tells of an instance where Gay was awakened in the middle of the night by policemen who take him to the site of a horrific crash involving and likely caused by his son. The story begins with a line that perfectly sets the tone: “Opportunity only knocks once; ruin will kick the door down and barge on in.” In this account, Gay sympathizes with both the victims of the wreck as well as his son and looks deep into his own influence on the child’s life that may have led to the “ruin” of so many.

Another memoir snippet begins as a love letter to Gay’s earliest literary influences and then effortlessly transitions into an informal, yet erudite criticism of several titans of the southern literary canon. Particularly notable is his opinion of Erskine Caldwell’s unfair treatment of poor Southerners and how it perpetuated a stereotype that is unfortunately still alive.

Stories from the Attic marks the final installment of Gay’s posthumous works and one that belongs in any fan’s collection. It is unique from his other publications in that it gives an inside look at the man who many believe to be the rightful heir to Faulkner and O’Connor. The stories gathered in this book drill down to reveal a true literary talent who experienced the hardships and faced the dire situations that inspired his starkly realistic portrayals of life on the troubling edge of society.

Link to Dzanc -> https://www.dzancbooks.org/our-books/stories-from-the-attic

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