The Southern novelist William Gay, who began late and finished strong, died at home on Thursday night, apparently from a heart attack.
The author of four novels and a collection of stories, Gay did not publish his first until he was 56. A sharecropper’s son, he was born in Hohenwald, Tennessee — a small town in the state’s Highland Rim — and became the first member of his family to finish high school. An alert teacher, noticing that he was reading Zane Grey outside of class, gave him a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Gay was hooked on fiction. He started writing his own stories, but a poor boy of the rural South did not set out to become a self-supporting writer in the early Sixties — not at least if his parents had anything to say about it. Gay joined the U.S. Navy, serving in the Vietnam War. Coming back to the states after a four-year stint, he lived in New York and Chicago before returning to Hohenwald at the age of 35. He worked in home construction during the day and settled in to become a fiction writer at night.
The Long Home, his first novel, was published in 1999. A revenge tragedy set in 1940s Tennessee, the book takes its title from Ecclesiastes (12.5). Compared by disoriented critics to fiction by Barry Hannah and Larry Brown, it was one of a kind: a novel that came out of nowhere, by a middle-aged working-class writer without connections or pretense. It was not, however, a beginner’s book. It was aged and sharpened by hard-edged experience. In a Southern Review essay on his career, William Giraldi praises it winningly:
In Gay’s able hands the archetypal characters of The Long Home spring to life as if for the first time: the young man on a quest; the gray sage who guides him; the comic sidekick who aids him; the gorgeous damsel who inspires him; and the villain who tries to thwart him. Their language is so authentic it seems not written at all: you listen to their dialogue as they sit in the same room with you. It’s speech that smells: the Coca-Cola and cool beer belches, the early morning conversations held through the aroma of black coffee drunk from jars.
Gay’s second novel, Provinces of Night, followed the next year, and his collected stories two years after that. Twilight, perhaps his best novel, was published in 2006. Lost Country was completed two years ago, but has yet to be released. Gay withheld the manuscript from the publisher when his advance went unpaid. “It will probably come out from somebody else,” he said later, but so far it hasn’t. At the time of his death he was working on a fifth novel.
The deepest influence on his writing was Faulkner. “He took ordinary people and gave them mythic dimensions,” Gay told Giraldi in an interview. “Wolfe’s people are loftier, more aware of themselves. But Faulkner’s people are in the middle of it all, buffeted and battered by life.” Gay was buffeted and battered too, but managed to salvage three (or four
or, if we are lucky, five) remarkable novels from a life that ended too soon.
Update: William Giradi has written to me about Gay’s death: “I was punched with the news. Awful. And he never finished the novel he’d been sitting on for years. That’s the worse part of it. We won’t have another book. He is dead.”