Attention Must be Paid—The William Faulkner of Tennessee

27 Feb

William Gay, called the “William Faulkner of Tennessee” by cognoscenti in his home state, died of a heart attack this past weekend. If any proof is needed of the NewYorkcentricism of American publishing world (or at least the press coverage) search engine the name of William Gay, and you will get more results for the same named NFL football player.

I came to be aware of William Gay in a 2003 conversation with Tom Franklin, he extolled the talents and writings of William Gay and that, of course, is how much of the important information in the literary world is transmitted (if not the world-at-large) And if you care to know, as I hope you will, more about Gay, William Giraldi has written eloquently in a long exegesis, A World Almost Rotten: The Fiction of William Gay in the Southern Review. It begins:

In William Gay’s scorched world Flannery O’Connor is present less as a looming ghoul than an elderly aunt who lives in his house and will not die. And yet, despite O’Connor’s strong presence (and the unavoidable presence of the Yahweh of Southern literature, the god from whom no male writer in the South can ever hope to flee), Gay’s work is wholly his own, pulsing with both tradition and novelty. His four books have been crafted from darkness: The Long Home (1999), Provinces of Night (2000), Twilight (2006), and the story collection I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002). Gay is, along with Barry Hannah, Cormac McCarthy, and Harry Crews, one of the four living horsemen of the Southern apocalypse.

There was not a single pocket in Tennessee in which Gay could hide from Faulkner’s commanding influence. For an aspiring writer in working-class Lewis County, Faulkner existed in the very air…

Giraldi’s elegiac take on Gay concludes:

The writer Tom Franklin, a dear friend to Gay, tells a story about how Gay was so poor when he was a youth that he had to mix water with crushed walnut shells in order to make ink. Gay admits that the family couldn’t afford a car when he was growing up, but he doesn’t boast of poverty. The writer with unflinching portray- als of human cruelty in his fiction is in life a mild and dignified man. Franklin speaks of his “purity,” his indifference to celebrity and the hurly-burly of New York publishing. Despite astounding natural talent, Gay sometimes sounds sur- prised that he’s a writer and that he’s been able to earn a living from his work for the past decade.
Surprised or not, Gay continues to beget stories and novels that help splinter the early-twentieth-century fairytale of an Edenic South, that shear humankind down to the bone to lay bare the original sin and the sporadic warmth beating beneath our ribs, and for that you should thank whichever god you call your own.

RIP William Gay

Currently reading The Collective by Don Lee (WW Norton)

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