My new favorite writer is William Gay. He writes about a community of backwoods Tennessee characters entangled by geography, blood, competition, greed, love, and vengeance. The thing about Gay is that he’s the strange twin brother of Cormac McCarthy—or at least his pen is. To be more specific, the existence of Gay’s oeuvre can be explained if Cormac McCarthy somehow never left Tennessee for Texas and then New Mexico, and never wrote the Border Trilogy, or No Country for Old Men, or The Road, or The Councilor. Instead, Gay is McCarthy, had McCarthy just stayed in his home state and continued to write the brutal southern gothic tales that comprised his first four books—The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God, and Suttree.
With Gay, like McCarthy before him, you’ll find many of the stories set in the early to mid-20th century dealing with the digging up of the dead and the molestation of the dead. They feature great southern conversations that seem so authentic, you’d think Gay traveled back in time and transcribed what he heard. He writes crisp and prolonged descriptions of nature that, in their clarity, evoke something almost mystical hiding behind the implacable façade of the southern holler. And of course, the men in his work are like demons. They’re depraved and crafty with their schemes and rifles. They’re so shorn of sympathy and empathy for their fellow man, the only thing they share with him is the mantle of skin. And underneath that skin is full blown Old Scratch devilry. These are men who’ve descended from Faulkner’s Flem Snopes, of the Snopes Trilogy. Their upbringing in the dispossessed south has molded them into forces of equal parts avarice, cunning, and black hearts. Their only goal in life is to accumulate money at the expense of others, and often, sadistically, because it hurts others.
I was first introduced to Gay’s writing by my former City by the Sea co-star, Anson Mount, who also teaches acting at Columbia University and stars in Hell on Wheels. Mount came to see me on Broadway in Of Mice and Men. Backstage, after the show, we were chatting about movies and literary things. He mentioned this book by a Tennessee writer with the unfortunate title of Twilight. The bookwas released around the same time as the vampire Twilight, which forced it to be talked about with introductions that made it clear it had nothing to do with teen vamps, but was a macabre coming of age story in its right.
William Gay died in 2012, however, Twilight—like most of his work—takes place in the mid-century. It follows a boy’s resistance to a corpse-molesting undertaker and the unstoppable hit man the undertaker hires to kill the boy because the boy and his sister have discovered the undertaker’s secrets. If that story line doesn’t sound like McCarthy, I don’t know what does. It’s more Cormac McCarthy than Cormac McCarthy.
As far as I know, Gay didn’t start publishing until the end of his life, spending most of it eking a living as a factotum of odd jobs in construction, carpentry, house painting, and whatnot. His first book was The Long Home and itis my new favorite book. It bears a title that references the eternal sleep of death. Its characters are embroiled in their country lives, doing things that are seemingly of no account. But somehow Gay infuses their activities with an epic grandeur, so that the building of a honky-tonk in the middle of the woods changes from a carpentry job into an eternal confrontation between son and father-murderer. How does he do this? How do McCarthy and Faulkner and Gay take the events of life that deserve no spotlight because of their cliché pallor and turn them into actions of consequence that we care about?
I read tons of books and there are not many that catch my attention like these writers. I think the secret is that I, despite having grown up in a an affluent California city in the late 20th century, can identify with so many of these Southern characters from the past. Their surface circumstances don’t match my West Coast upbringing, but they are people wrestling with the practicalities of life: making a living, falling in love, fighting enemies. But the authors, through these characters, are dealing with the eternal: what does it mean to be a creative force on this Earth, does God exists, and how do we find meaning without his direct presence? This imbuing of the eternal in the everyday gives Gay’s work that same depth and consequence as McCarthy and Faulkner, so that at the same time everything can seem of the upmost importance while it’s also just sound and fury, signifying nothing.