27 December 2006

a novel by William Gay
deep in the tall pineys...
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First of all – when you name a thing, it can somehow limit the scope of that thing. For instance, when William Gay’s writing is labeled ‘Southern gothic’ by reviewers, it’s possible that a potential reader who has never particularly appreciated that genre might defer experiencing what could very well be a lifechanging literary experience. Know this: nobody writes like William Gay – and in the case of his work, it’s more an instance of the genre being absolutely exploded by the depth and scope of his art.

In Twilight, Gay lays out what in the hands of most other writers would be a simple tale of good-versus-evil. A brother and sister suspect that the local undertaker has cheated them in the burial of their father – a steel vault that should have surrounded his casket is, when they dig it up, missing. Following her hunches, Corrie Tyler convinces her brother Kenneth to join her in exhuming other deceased citizens of their rural Tennessee town – and what they find exceeds her wildest grim imaginings. The undertaker, one Fenton Breece, has apparently made a practice of desecrating – oftentimes obscenely – the bodies of the departed entrusted to his benevolent care. Corrie is determined that Breece should pay for what he did to their daddy – and Kenneth manages to purloin a bit of evidence – a bundle of…shall we say…incriminating photographs – from the trunk of the grim digger’s car that the two believe should convince him to cough up a hearty (in the day, 1951) bit of cash, in reparation and punishment.

Breece, however, disagrees – and while he consents to Corrie’s proffered bargain, he has other plans in mind for the siblings. He enlists one Granville Sutter – a local convicted murder and all-around doer of evil deeds – to retrieve the evidence and silence the brother and sister. What ensues is a wild ride, both for the protagonists and the reader. Sutter is easily the most evil character that Gay has thus far created – and, I would venture, one of the vilest one is likely to come across in literature of any age. He thinks nothing of killing – be it man, woman, child or beast – and he does so on a semi-regular basis, whenever it seems to him that killing is required. He pursues Kenneth Tyler into, through and out of the Harrikin – an area of abandoned mines, concealed shafts offering a deadly drop to a quick end for the unsuspecting traveler, ghost towns, dilapidated shacks populated by some truly unique, unforgettable characters, abandoned mansions, and unfettered overgrowth that would stymie even the most seasoned woodsman. At one point, Kenneth muses that in the Harrikin even a compass would swing to some false true north of the wilderness’ own devising. Many people – and farm animals – have wandered in and never come out.

The situations and people that Kenneth encounters in his flight from Sutter and toward justice are not placed in the story on a whim – each incident, each meeting awakens something new in the boy, something that is vital to his growth as a human being, something that encourages him to cling desperately to everything that makes his humanity real. Many people don’t experience these sorts of things at this intensity over the course of their entire life – imagine the impact on a person who goes through them in the course of a few days or weeks. That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
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Gay knows the area in which his books are set – and his characters – like the back of his hand, and he respects them both very deeply. The eccentricities of the land and the people who try to survive on it are played out to the fullest – and none of it ever comes across as caricature or condescension. His writing style always wraps me up as if I’ve been somehow transported to another world – another reviewer below likened reading William Gay to taking a drug, and I have to agree that’s an apt description. This story is as dark as dark can be (I certainly must say), but once I started it I couldn’t put it down. There is evil and violence here – but there is also wisdom and redemption and hope, so don’t be too afraid. I’ve read everything he’s published more than a few times, and I never tire of his work – give me more, please, doc…
I can also recommended William Gay's other books highly:

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