“The Lost Country,” by William Gay

William Gay

Reviewed by Richard Allen

The Lost Country is, at its heart, a novel about nothing. It covers a year or so in the life of Billy Edgewater – essentially a nomad – as he hitchhikes his way from town to town in 1950s rural Appalachia, on his way to Tennessee to see his father on his deathbed. Despite the circumstances, Edgewater is in no hurry. He settles down for days, weeks even, in every town he steps foot in, meeting plenty of morally ambiguous characters along the way. A one-armed con man named Roosterfish, the hard drinking and aimless Bradshaw, Bradshaw’s young and naïve sister Sudy, and the vile and loathsome D.L. Harkness are just a few of the acquaintances Edgewater makes throughout his journey.

The term most commonly used to describe William Gay’s novels is “southern gothic,” which I suppose fits his latest – and last – book well. Gay unfortunately passed before The Lost Country’s release, although he had written the bulk of the novel during the seventies, long before his untimely passing in 2012. The Lost Country centers around a character, known to most as merely Edgewater, with no discernable characteristics, who seems drawn to those unable to live a life separated from crime, seedy bars, violence, fast love and a dependence on moonshine. Gay had acknowledged to friends that Edgewater was a semi-autobiographical character, albeit slightly exaggerated for entertainment purposes.

Whether Edgewater likes or even cares about any of the individuals he encounters throughout the novel is unknown. He merely exists, and they happen to be in his presence. They barely register as a blip on his radar; He doesn’t actively try to avoid the men and women he encounters – but he also doesn’t seem to care much whether they will be there when he wakes up. This ambiguity makes for a compelling character study, if only because we, as humans, are so dead set on wanting to explain away the actions of others. We are unable to comprehend those who seem to have no master plan – those who seem content to lay where the road takes them and to make ends meet through whatever means necessary.

Edgewater’s basically futile existence is not a merely a characteristic known only to the reader, as many characters call him out on his seeming inability to care about anything or anyone on multiple occasions. This particularly insightful section perfectly sums up Edgewater and his worldview in just a couple of sentences:

You think you’re so smart because you don’t care about anything or anybody. Like that puts you above everybody else.

Well. I don’t know. I’m just like everybody else, trying to get by as light as I can. It seems to me it took a while for things to come to this; I guess it’ll take longer than a few minutes to figure out what to do. Quit crying and quit thinking about it till I work out something.

It’s all I can think about. It’s all I’ve been thinking about.

We’ll work something out.

That’s easy for you to say. You’re not real, she told him mockingly. If they was taking a census I doubt they’d even count you.

When they started to the house she hung back, there was a kind of mournful dread about her, and all the way back he was thinking: If I’d left yesterday, I wouldn’t know any of this, none of it would exist.

Like Edgewater, the novel is in no hurry to get anywhere in particular. It is long and winding, filled to the brim with Appalachian dialect, confusing characters and extreme situations. There are no chapters, just 353 pages of exposé in which very little – or perhaps, too much – happens despite nearly none of it being significant. Dialogue is not quoted and everything runs together in long flowing sentences that often place the burden on the reader to determine who is speaking to whom and what exactly they are trying to say.

Despite The Lost Country’s slow start – characters are rarely introduced; they just sort of appear and the reader must take them at face value – you can’t help but become drawn into its world and dark humor. Edgewater is the perfect anti-hero. While you shake your head at his antics, bad decisions, and the general lack of accountability for anybody around him, you also can’t help but become attached to his story. You will find yourself wondering where he will end up next, who he might encounter, which characters might return. The Lost Country is a story about nothing, and everything. About life and its profoundness, or maybe how meaningless it often is. A story about getting by in a world that has left you behind. A story about trying to figure out who you are but failing to unlock any sort of true understanding.

There may be a reason for the plot’s lack of any real purpose, as the novel was cobbled together through sheer determination by Sonny Brewer and Gay’s family after his passing. Months of scouring through notebooks and unnumbered pages led to the formation of the novel, so the reader must take it as is. We will never know if the finished product would have differed had Gay lived long enough to complete it – or if what we have been given is exactly as he intentioned. But taken as is, it is a novel of profound beauty in its prose and a vast love for the human experience, despite that beauty often materializing in the dingiest of bars or the seediest of motels mixed with the most unwholesome of individuals.

It’s not for everyone, but for those with an interest in southern gothic or Appalachia, The Lost Country will be a welcome surprise. Full of love for the 1950s in an America that has quickly been left behind, it is a love letter to the rural landscape and the feeling of being free that most of us lost so long ago. You will laugh, shake your head in disbelief and be forced to contemplate life – what more could you possibly ask of a novel?

The Lost Country is published by Dzanc Books. Born in Tennessee in 1939, William Gay began writing at 15 and authored his first novel at 25 but didn’t begin publishing until well into his fifties. He worked as a television salesman and in local factories, did construction, hung sheetrock, and painted houses to support himself. He preferred to sit in a kitchen chair at the edge of the woods with a spiral-bound notebook on his knee, writing in his peculiar scrawling longhand. His works include The Long Home, Provinces of the Night, I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, Wittgenstein’s Lolita, Twilight, Stoneburner, and Little Sister Death. His work has been adapted for the screen twice, That Evening Sun (2009) and Bloodworth (2010). Most recently, his debut novel has been optioned for film. He died in 2012.

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