I have a deep bond with the literature that was recommended to me by the man I used to love. Some of the books he passed along I rejected out of hand—books such as Never Let Me Go and The Cement Garden and Child of God. Knee-jerk reactions to literature are one of my bad habits, then and now—but my beloved was patient with me. He enjoyed playing tricks on me, and he used tricks to encourage me to read. These tricks were clever and varied. It would begin with finding ways to put me in a story’s situation, such as that of Jenny in An Education. Or he would suggest that we watch a film adapted from a book he thought I should read, such as The Danish Girl. My beloved would sometimes make me terribly jealous by mentioning his female friends, who had read the books he liked.
I like best authors who are honest with their readers, so let me be honest with you. There were times when my jealousy got the best of me, and I became stubborn. And that is why I didn’t read Edward Albee’s The Sandbox until after my beloved had died, when one of my professors introduced it to our class as one of the most popular texts in 20th-century drama classes in Iran.
The play’s harsh portrayal of the American dream was the first and last reason for its popularity in our drama classes. These kinds of anti-American-dream texts could please the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, although if they had known that Albee was gay they would never have let professors teach it at all. Or, who knows, maybe they wouldn’t have cared, because the only thing that matters to the SCRC is criticizing the dreamland.
Albee’s The Sandbox can be considered something of a “lost text,” both because Albee died in September 2016 and because the play wasn’t ever well-received in the U.S. In 1960, the late New York Times theater critic Arthur Gelb dismissed the play as “most disappointing” and a “trifle.” In a 1966 interview, Albee said, “I’m terribly fond of The Sandbox. I think it’s an absolutely beautiful, lovely, perfect play.” The Sandbox was written in 1959 and was first produced the following year, offering harsh criticisms of capitalism and the breakdown of moral values among generations.
My reading of Edward Albee began one morning in my drama class, a couple months after my beloved’s death. As a depressed girl in those days, even a funny joke would make me cry. So reading The Sandbox was a tragic experience. The play is a black comedy about a middle-aged couple who take their mother to the beach to bury her alive. It borrows its characters from Albee’s earlier play, The American Dream. In my class, I was always chosen to recite the text. Reading The Sandbox out loud in my class felt like I could be any of the characters—Mommy, Daddy, and the poor Grandma. Oh, Grandma, poor Grandma! Albee dedicated the play to his own grandma.
Although The Sandbox was very obscure to me at first, his other works, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Play About the Baby, and The American Dream, were my favorites. The school of absurdist theater was one I had learned well, including works such as Jean Genet’s The Maids, Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe, Harold Pinter’s The Lover, and Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson. The last of these was highly influential on Albee’s plays, and I read somewhere that Albee had described Ionesco’s impact on both The American Dream and The Sandbox.
As I was reading it out loud in class, the atmosphere of the play and its minimalism reminded me of Beckett. The connections of characters, the irrational dialogue, and also the repetition of words made The Sandbox seem Pinteresque. Mommy and Daddy call each other by their given names. Mommy was more powerful than Daddy—even physically, she is bigger. The power of Mommy was undeniable. She was Grandma’s daughter but was very cruel to her; Mommy was willing to kill her. Daddy might be the most fragile man I’ve ever seen in a literary text, and he does his best to unconditionally obey Mommy. This gave me an image of some Iranian men, so it wasn’t just an American thing—it felt like something universal.
While reading the play, I never thought of American grandmothers; I thought of many Iranian grandmothers who shared Grandma’s fate. I attempted to imagine Iranian mommies and daddies trying to murder Iranian grandparents and found it tragically absurd. Grandma in the play could have been my own grandma, and I thought of her and her death.
Here’s what happened: She died at the age of 75, but the cause of her death was always vague to us. We were told that she died of a heart attack, but later on we realized she had a stroke and was taken to the hospital after 12 hours, which was very late and dangerous for someone of her age. After two days in the intensive care unit, she passed away. The doctors said she would have lived if she had been taken to the hospital sooner.
My grandma didn’t live alone. She lived with my wealthy aunt, the eldest child in their family. After my grandma’s death, some relatives, siblings, and also my parents stopped talking with my aunt because although she had discovered my grandma’s stroke early in the morning, she did not take her to the hospital. She claimed my grandma was too old and sick, and she couldn’t enjoy her life, and so it made no difference for her to live longer. I never understood her logic and so I stopped talking with my aunt as well, even though she had been like a mother in my life. She helped raised me, and it was hard to believe that the woman who combed my hair and taught me kindness and love was the one who killed my grandma.
In protest, I didn’t attend my grandma’s funeral. The loss was too big. Those days, I was with my beloved and our relationship was in its best shape. He did his best to help me recover from this trauma. It wasn’t easy. My beloved and I were philosophical about such issues and could talk about it for hours. There were questions which remained unanswered. We often had these discussions at Milad Tower in the west of Tehran. Milad Tower is the sixth-tallest tower in the world. It took almost a decade to construct, from 2000 to 2009, and it is considered a symbol of the new Tehran.
My beloved didn’t like Milad Tower. “See, Shohreh!” he said. “Our society is ruined by modernism. This tower has nothing to do with Tehran. It is very ugly. They say it is a symbol of modernity, but we have gotten very ugly things from modernity and this tower would be one of them.”
“Pseudo-modernity, sweetheart,” I said. “Our society is ruined by pseudo-modernity. We picked ugly things from modernity. We became ignorant of our traditions. Do civilized people let an old woman die of stroke just because she is too old and poor?”
My beloved told me it wasn’t my fault. We walked for a while and he gave me one of those starry looks and asked me, “Have you started the modern drama class? What did your professor recommend to read? Shohreh, please read The Sandbox.”
In the classroom, I paused in my reading. The professor asked me if I was tired of reading out loud. I started crying. I had nothing to say but I wished I had read it sooner. I shared the story with the class. My professor thought there was still hope when someone feels regret and cries. We talked about how the situation of The Sandbox was similar to what is happening in Iran today. One of the students believed that it wouldn’t always be the issue of money, and it could happen in upper classes, too. Others thought it was not only our society facing the trauma; it would happen in other developing societies, too. It would be a big and traumatic problem that any country would encounter.
I told my parents about the class discussion. They claimed that in the 1970s and 1980s, our society wasn’t like this. Postwar Iran quickly changed from a ruined country to a developing one. People moved from villages and small cities to the capital. City life and its problems appeared, such as people working two and sometimes three jobs, and bit by bit they got used to a lifestyle in which people don’t have that much time for each other and meet their relatives only once or twice per year. This could be true even of your own parents. Through all these changes, some valuable traditions were lost.
Albee was trying to criticize the America of 1959; ironically, he produced a better criticism of Iran today, where the older generation is always in danger of being buried in the sandboxes of forgotten values.
In this way, Albee is correct—The Sandbox is perfect. A successful piece of literature can be understood across borders and between societies, even when a work is “lost” in the home of its creator.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that when I found out Richard Matheson was dead, I was watching television; there are few writers, after all, with a more intimate, lengthy relationship with both that living room medium and its bombastic cousin, the feature film. The storyteller in me wishes I’d had one of the many Matheson-penned episodes of The Twilight Zone on in the background at the moment I learned of his passing, if only because it feels like a modicum of disquieting coincidence in keeping with the sort of urgent, vital fiction he seemed to pump out effortlessly for decades. Imagine it: a fan learns of a famous writer’s death as the very words he wrote drift from the television, and cut to the fan’s face and cue the spooky score as he senses invisible, supernatural hands at work.
Alas, there was no such luck, as my fiancée and I were approximately chest-deep in an evening marathon of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and I had to make do with the melodious sound of Detective Elliot Stabler slamming a perpetrator’s head into the reflective glass of the police interview room. Of course, Matheson, of all people, likely wouldn’t have begrudged me a brief indulgence in what you could (charitably) call campy, disposable entertainment (if you’ve seen “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, you know what I mean).
“Richard Matheson died today,” I said.
“Hm?” My fiancée said. I pressed mute so we wouldn’t have to talk over Stabler cartoonishly brutalizing a suspect.
“This writer, Richard Matheson, he died today. He was 87, but still, you know. Terrible.”
“That’s so sad,” she said. We were very nearly through half a moment of reflective, respectful silence when she returned to playing Sudoku on her iPad. Stabler gritted his teeth and sneered something into the perpetrator’s ear.
“So, you don’t have the slightest clue who that is.”
“Nope,” she said politely. “Should I?”
I opened my mouth to begin what would, knowing me, be an exhaustively detailed, near-insufferable process of explanation, complete with video clips, historical context regarding his influence on other important contemporary writers, and breathlessly quoted vital passages, but after a moment, I found nothing would come out. Matheson’s long been a favorite, and someone whose career and influence I find inspiring, but here I was, unable to speak about him.
My fiancée looked at me. “You know who he is, right?”
It’s hard for me to talk about writers.
Don’t get me wrong. I can talk about books and writers for-goddamn-ever, and love to; we can spread some sleeping bags on the kitchen floor and have an impromptu sleepover and talk about stories all night if you’d like. That being said, I believe the lens through which I view such things is a little odd. It’s not just that I love literature and books — it’s that my mind is built with an obsessive proclivity for recalling lists of titles, and influences, and passages, and on and on. Like I said, this is odd, but more importantly in regards to interacting with others, it’s boring.
Inciting yawns, you see, is precisely the opposite of my intention, particularly if it means shutting someone’s mind down about an author with whom they might someday fall in love. I want to be a participant in the literary community, and an envoy for short stories and novels and any other means of delivering some of the cream of the printed crop; I don’t want to screw someone out of discovering something great because they got bored after I started rattling off James Baldwin’s bibliography like I’ve got literary tourettes.
So if someone hasn’t heard of Cormac McCarthy (and I’ve avoided impulsively bludgeoning them with something), I don’t say: “Here’s Child of God and The Crossing and Blood Meridian and the script for The Sunset Limited, take a quick gander and you’ll have a good idea of his importance to the western canon and HEY WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” Instead, I simplify for the sake of continuing the proverbial conversation by relying on a perhaps more easily accessible cultural reference: feature films. Let’s be honest. Films are easier and quicker to consume than novels or short stories, for the most part, and that fact alone makes them an easier experiential mountain to climb for the majority of busy people and their shorter and shorter attention spans.
“He’s the dude who wrote No Country. You remember. The one where Javier Bardem had the bowl cut and fucked up like thirty people.”
“Oh, rad. Yeah, he housed that guy with the air gun. That was fucking sweet,” they say, nodding.
Does this constitute participation in the long, slow dumbing-down of culture? Maybe. However, what I’m also saying, what I consider the more salient ultimate point is that my strategy at least continues a conversation about an artist instead of ending it; having seen a film they liked, a friend may pick up the novel that inspired it.
I can bask in a momentary thrill when a friend nods in recognition, because hey, maybe I’ve just played a small part in someone discovering something cool. Of course, my endorsement or quick distillation of an author’s identity through film adaptations may not lead to a friend mowing through an extensive list of works, but it might.
I’ve used film as a successful means to introduce people to writers before. It works for Annie Proulx. It works for Toni Morrison. If you’re willing to be disqualify anything from the ’80s (or anything, like the legendarily bad television adaptation of The Stand, that involves Gary Sinise), it sort of works for Stephen King. You’d think that given his extensive list of adapted works and his own involvement in the television and film industries, it’d work for Matheson, too.
You would be wrong.
You would be breathtakingly wrong, in fact. You would be so wrong as to necessitate a bracing shot of something almost incalculably strong before looking at the man’s IMDB page. In fact, instead of reviewing his filmography, content yourself with this miserable spoiler alert: Matheson’s work has been adapted into a stunning litany of shitty movies.
Other authors you might fairly categorize as important are at least the occasional beneficiary of good film adaptations — or at least they trend much less toward the sad, dark wasteland of whoops, does anyone remember why we cast Paul Walker? With Matheson, that’s not the case. A number of his works — each considered at least addicting, pulpy-fun page turners, and at best as profoundly influential to a generation of writers — have been adapted in recent years, and, well, they are all really, really bad. Even though the written work is good, the adaptation — despite widely varying directors, screenwriters, and casts — ends up bafflingly terrible.
Is there something inherent in Matheson’s writing that makes for bad adaptations? Such a premise doesn’t seem to make sense, because the works vary enough — stylistically and thematically — to rule out a single fundamental flaw. What Dreams May Come is a novel incredibly different from I Am Legend. “Steel”is a short story with no readily apparent similarities to “Button, Button.” And yet all four have produced adaptations (What Dreams May Come, I Am Legend, Real Steel, and The Box, respectively) in the last few decades that have been (deservedly) panned by critics and fans.
Frankly, it seems worthy of a Twilight Zone episode. Richard Matheson. 87. A writer and screenwriter and noted figure in the annals of contemporary literature. He’s about to find out, though, that simply producing an effective story is not enough. When adaptations are concerned, sometimes, an effective story is just what one needs to produce a completely ridiculous and terrible story. Richard Matheson is entering a world beyond sight and sound. He’s about to arrive…in The Twilight Zone.
Let’s look at the evidence.
“Button, Button” is without question a classic example of the short story form. It’s a work of stunning power that flashes by with equally breathtaking brevity. You know the plot; a cash-strapped couple are offered the opportunity to make $50,000, simply provided they push the button on a small, innocent-looking contraption delivered unexpectedly to their doorstep. The only catch? As a result of their button-pushing, someone they’ve never met, somewhere, will be killed.
The story’s few, intense, spare pages are spent exploring the couple’s conflicts over the morality of a utilizing a device they agree cannot possibly do what its mysterious proprietor claims it does. It’s a bad joke, Norma and Arthur are certain, but, as they wonder over tense dinnertime disagreements, what if it isn’t? It’s a question Norma especially wrestles with, and after her resolve crumbles, the story climaxes with an eminently re-readable denouement that seems a forerunner of the now-ubiquitous twist ending:
She felt unreal as the voice informed her of the subway accident, the shoving crowd. Arthur pushed from the platform in front of the train. She was conscious of shaking her head but couldn’t stop.
As she hung up, she remembered Arthur’s life insurance policy for $25,000, with double indemnity for-
“No.” She couldn’t seem to breathe. She struggled to her feet and walked into the kitchen numbly. Something cold pressed at her skull as she removed the button unit from the wastebasket. There were no nails or screws visible. She couldn’t see how it was put together.
Abruptly, she began to smash it on the sink edge, pounding it harder and harder, until the wood split. She pulled the sides apart, cutting her fingers without noticing. There were no transistors in the box, no wires or tubes. The box was empty.
She whirled with a gasp as the telephone rang. Stumbling into the living room, she picked up the receiver.
“Mrs. Lewis?” Mr. Steward asked.
It wasn’t her voice shrieking so; it couldn’t be. “You said I wouldn’t know the one that died!”
“My dear lady,” Mr. Steward said, “do you really think you knew your husband?”
It’s a strikingly memorable story, and perhaps its best quality is also, in regards to film adaptation, its biggest problem: the restraint with which Matheson writes. Consider what he doesn’t tell us; we don’t learn the intent of the organization behind the contraption or the button; we’re never given much in the way of background or description of the story’s closest thing to an antagonist, Mr. Steward; and we’re certainly not provided any explanation as to how Arthur’s death is orchestrated or what nefarious, possibly supernatural forces are at work. All Matheson gives us is a mirror of the same troubling awareness his characters are grappling with — that forces they cannot possibly understand are at work in the background of their lives. “Button, Button” does what all the great works of the short form do: it gives the reader a sense of a larger world.
The larger, imagined world can be used, figuratively speaking, for both good and evil, though. I’d argue the good is to be found in the sometimes nameless, occasionally sleep-depriving consideration that results from reading a story like this, while the proverbial bad comes from people who decide there’s money to be made in committing to film their answers to questions Matheson probably meant to be rhetorical.
Which brings us to The Box, the 2009 adaptation of “Button, Button.” I won’t harp opportunistically on the casting missteps (though I could, because did you realize Cameron Diaz is in this movie dear God), but there’s a mistaken approach at work here — one that illuminates the precise problem in modern filmmakers adapting Richard Matheson’s writing.
They want to tell us everything.
Whereas the source material short story derives much of its power from the sense it creates of normal people rendered pawns in a mysterious, inexplicable game, The Box explains, helpfully, that the machine delivered to Arthur and Norma’s doorstep is a means of testing the morality of humans.
“Okay, we knew that,” you’re saying. “That’s pretty much what the short story is implying.”
Yes, but DID YOU KNOW IT’S A TEST CONCOCTED BY ALIENS THAT CONTROL LIGHTNING?
“…oh,” you’re murmuring.
It’s not sufficient, you see, for the creators of The Box to hint at dark forces beyond our understanding up to no good. For the purposes of a movie, they implicitly argue, implication and suggestion are not good enough. Our villains need a big, scary plan, and an origin story, and they need a larger plot, and you better goddamn believe they need some CGI to be the whipped cream on top. Here you go.
Let’s not waste time cataloging how few of those things are even close to included in the source material (another spoiler: NONE). Adaptations are precisely that — reimaginings of preexisting material, often shaped and expanded for the purposes of a particular project. The problem here, though, isn’t that someone dared to alter Matheson’s material; it’s that they approached a narrative that works in large part because of suspenseful atmosphere and implication, and then totally abandoned both. The end result, as you can see, is somehow at once hokey and painfully dour.
It’s not just something dark at work, it’s aliens. It’s not just a suggested moral conflict, it’s actually a scientific test of morality conducted by aliens to determine if a species should be exterminated. It’s a distinctly Hollywood sort of affliction, one born of the ill-conceived notion that movies are better if they have something bigger, something cooler, something more impressive, something just a little bit more.
Now, of course, you can argue these ideas (aliens, lightning, CGI water coffins, CGI face scars, whatever CGI is used to make James Marsden so supernaturally attractive) are ones Matheson held in his head when he wrote the original story, but I’d have to argue pretty strongly that A) no and B) if he did, at least he had the artistic decency and good sense to let his evil lurk in the shadows instead of dragging it embarrassingly out into the bright light.
And therein is the problem. Matheson had the good sense, the near-unteachable instinct that told him when a story’s construction necessitated the appearance of a shadowy, foul terror — but also the courage to do the opposite, to leave us with unanswered questions. That degree of artistic discipline and restraint, though, isn’t particularly common in contemporary filmmaking. In fact, if popular genre fiction in this day and age creates lingering uncertainties instead of neatly concluded narratives with tidy endings, you almost have to expect a clumsy director to render it into some unintended horror show of green-screen hackery. To use a phrase that’d get me a flying elbow to the throat from Detective Stabler, you’re pretty much asking for it.
In The Box as well as the other Matheson adaptations I’ve mentioned that fall short of the mark, source material that artfully leaves work up to the reader’s imagination is abandoned in favor of whiz-bang film wizardry or action that is not actually particularly magical. It’s not intended to be magical, either, for magic baffles and confounds the brain, and leads it to try and make sense of the fantastic, the mysterious, the impossible. It’s not a special effect intended to supplement and expand a story — it’s a gimmick that does the imagining for you.
Can you blame Matheson for employing uncertainty and letting readers formulate their own shapeless boogeymen, whether moral or supernatural or otherwise? Of course not. His deep relationship with campy entertainment aside, even an imagination as vivid as Matheson’s couldn’t have possibly anticipated the nature of the myriad adaptations of his work to come both during his life and after; no author or artist can. It’s not their job to, either, because stories and movies and everything else they commit to paper or film or whatever medium is next aren’t static, finished things. Once they’re published or released, your art is no longer your own. Like it or not, the work belongs to everyone.
Which is, come to think of it, how reputations function, too. They’re not fixed, they’re fluid — from book to book, from film to film, from generation to generation, and most gallingly to me, from person to person, too. The truth is that I was struggling to speak about Matheson not because I couldn’t figure out what to say, but because the adaptations of his work are so bad I worried my fiancée, in this case, would never check him out again. In other words, I wasn’t trying to be a conduit for great writers — I was trying to decide what someone thought for them, before they experienced any of a particular writer’s work. I was, in other words, committing roughly the same sin as all those unmitigated trainwrecks of film adaptations, the lackadaisical imaginations at which I rolled my eyes and scoffed.
How about that for a twist?
Of course, I’d love for everyone to experience and understand the artists I find rewarding and enthralling the same way as me, but such a thing is impossible — not just because of Will Smith and CGI zombies, or Cameron Diaz and lightning aliens, or Hugh Jackman and silly jumping robots, but simply because we’ve all got different relationships with art, and varying ideas of what it should do and the role it should play. Who am I to act as the arbiter for people’s taste, or decide how anyone else should experience a writer? My job isn’t to make anyone’s mind up for them.
My fiancée was still staring at me expectantly. I thought about some of my favorite Matheson stories. Some scenes from adaptations flashed through my mind.
“Let me tell you about some amazingly bad lightning aliens, dear,” I said. “You are going to love this.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Sometime Ph.D candidate, sometime actor, and ubiquitous lit blog all-star James Franco (henceforth known as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”) has begun filming an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God in West Virginia, and I’m reminded of that line from W. B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” — “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions.
In answer to a question at the Clarkesville Writers Conference in 2010 about how his life has changed since he’s achieved literary success, William Gay said, “If I hadn’t wanted to be a writer so much, I’d probably still be married […] It was like being Pa Ingalls in ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ and then suddenly I was going to writers’ conferences and that kind of stuff. It was pretty jarring, to be honest about it.”
Gay was 55 years old, in 1998, when his first stories were published in the Georgia and Missouri Reviews. An editor at the Missouri Review who had publishing house connections asked if he had a novel, and he did; in 1999, Gay’s first novel The Long Home was published by a small press in Denver. He’d been writing since he was 15 years old. In the intervening years, he’d been in the Navy, lived in New York and Chicago for short periods of time working in factories, then returned to his birthplace of Lewis County, Tenn., where he worked many years as a construction worker, carpenter, and house painter. He has lived in Hohenwald, Tenn., five miles from where he was raised in a sharecropper’s cabin, for some 30 years now.
Gay’s stories have appeared in Harper’s, GQ, The Atlantic, Southern Review, and the Oxford American, among others, and have been widely anthologized. He has published two additional novels, Provinces of Night and Twilight, both to critical acclaim. (Provinces of Night was made into a movie, Bloodworth, starring Kris Kristofferson, in 2010). He has been referred to as “the Faulkner of Tennessee”—high praise for someone who cites Faulkner as the writer about whom he feels this way: “Sometimes you read something so good that you want to break your pencils… you feel sad because you know you’ll never be that good […] but at the same time you feel good because someone else did it and you can read it, it’s in the world.” Critics place Gay’s work firmly in the tradition of the Southern Gothic, with Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe (one of his earliest influences), Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. He is also often compared to Cormac McCarthy (the epigraph for Provinces of Night is from McCarthy’s Child of God)—if for no other reason because of his omission of quotation marks around dialogue: “If you don’t have the quotes, it’s just more natural to me, it’s just part of the narrative. Also, when I read The Orchard Keeper I noticed that Cormac McCarthy didn’t use quotes either; so I figured it was okay.” (In his review of The Long Home in 1999, Tony Earley suggested that Gay was in fact overly imitative of McCarthy to his detriment.)
“You Southerners. I’ve been here for 15 years, and I’ll never understand you,” says young Fleming Bloodworth’s English teacher, Mr. Spivey, in Provinces of Night. He is a lonely man, and a cripple, but is offering to “help” the boy (in whom he sees a burgeoning intelligence) through his family troubles. “We do just fine on our own,” Fleming replies. So Gay establishes the sense that the South is a world unto its own, that the outsider will always have limited access, will never know. Reading Gay you get the sense that he wants you to simultaneously live in his world but also respect its sacred ground from your proper place (even watching him read at the Clarksville Conference on YouTube felt a bit voyeuristic). Like Spivey, I find myself deeply drawn to the tragedies and ecstasies of rural Southern life, and yet not quite worthy of full access, of the kind of ownership that as readers we want to claim when we love certain books.
For better or for worse, I experience Gay’s vision and talents as transcendent of regional bounds; unlike the reviewers at Publisher’s Weekly, who wrote that his 2002 story collection I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down “confirms his place in the Southern fiction pantheon,” I would not include the word “Southern” in that assessment, if it is meant in some way to put limits on the emotional and spiritual reach, or literary prowess, of Gay’s fiction. Such valuations needn’t, at any rate, represent either/or delineators; while Gay himself might prize being considered among the Southern greats, his stories of desolation and beauty—brimming, yes, with the familiar Gothic elements of violence and darkness of hearts—feed and trouble our souls, whether or not we come to the text already knowing the “timeless tolling of whippoorwills […] both bitter and reassuring,” or have passed ugly nights in a honkytonk, or keep a rifle or a pistol (or both) under the bed (as most of Gay’s characters do). “You need to know what a man’s capable of. You need to know what things cost,” says a character in the story “Crossroads Blues,” and this for me captures Gay’s literary-existential universe. To this reader, Gay is essentially a romantic writer, who sees the full range of humanity’s nobility and evil in the doings and beings of his mid-century rural Tennessee—bootleggers, veterans, farmers, carpenters, pimps, whores, fathers and sons and murderers and thieves (especially), squatters, musicians, porch-rockers, drifters, and hunter-gatherers. “Well,” said Gay, both shrugging and off and enjoying the comparison, “I guess Tennessee needs a Faulkner.”
But back to those rifles and pistols.
If you are new to Gay, you might do well to start with his short stories, collected in I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (The Free Press, 2002) and also in a slim, self-published (or locally-published, it’s not quite clear) volume of just two stories called Wittgenstein’s Lolita. A murder lurks in the recesses of every story—often by gunfire, though not always; sometimes homicide, not infrequently canicide. Gay likes the murder as a secret that a person carries around like a talisman, a confession that emerges late in the story: You need to know what a man’s capable of. But Gay manages—without trivializing the act of murder exactly (though the sheer frequency of it does give a non gun-toter pause)—to make each story, each life, about much more, about something other, than moral judgment. In Gay’s universe—in his landscape that is at once wild and wasted and Arcadian, where scoundrels bury their gold in fruit jars, and both the guilty and the innocent vanish from the face of the earth without a trace—a man kills for a clear reason, or for no apparent reason. Either way, a dark, compelling mystery brews.
For Gay, the killing itself seems to be both the least arresting, and the least verifiable, of acts: In “A Death in the Woods,” a woman’s lover is found dead in the nearby forest, the death ruled a suicide. Her unknowing husband puts the pieces together, then confronts her:
“What made him do it? Did he get in over his head and you brushed him off? Did he break it off and you were about to tell his wife? Or did you shoot him yourself?
She went on serenely packing clothes […] I sort of got the impression that that sheriff thought you knew a lot more than you were saying. Perhaps you did it yourself.”
In “The Paperhanger,” a disturbed man confesses to his former employer that, years before, he killed his wife (and dug up a grave in which to toss her body) after learning of her affair with her boss.
The doctor’s wife didn’t say anything. She just watched him.
A grave is the best place to dispose of a body, the paperhanger said. […] A good settling rain and the fall leaves and you’re home free. Now that’s eternity for you.
Did you kill someone, she breathed. Her voice was barely audible.
Did I or did I not, he said. You decide. You have the powers of a god. You can make me a murderer or just a heartbroke guy whose wife quit him. What do you think? Anyway, I don’t have a wife. I expect she just walked off into the abstract […]
And in “Wittgenstein’s Lolita,” Rideout, whose wife cheated on him, and Rebekah, whose husband beats her, begin an affair. They tell each other their sad stories: “In time to come Rideout would decide that everything that happened grew out of the stories they told each other […] Threads from one tale crept to another and bound them as inextricably as a particular sequencing of words binds teller to tale to listener.” Rideout tells Rebekah that his wife and her lover were found dead in the woods. The lover’s wife later brought out a letter her husband had sent to her describing a murder-suicide pact the two lovers had planned, since the wife wouldn’t give him a divorce.
Or maybe, [Rebekah] said.
Or maybe what?
Maybe Ingraham did write the note and send it to her but then changed his mind. Wised up and wasn’t going to use it. Maybe she kept the note and did it herself.
Rideout shook his head […] I told you the story, he said.
You told me a story with too many possible endings, she said. She was smiling at him. Maybe it happened just the way you said. Or maybe she did it. Or maybe you wrote her the letter and killed them yourself.
Too many possible endings. Too many threads and tales. If I killed someone, what does it mean? What does it make me? If I am lying, what does it matter? What if you did it? Could you have done it? No one in Gay’s stories really deserves to live, and yet some do; as for those whose lives have been brutally abbreviated, why, the reader wonders disturbingly, should we care? What do we really know, or believe, about the people with whom we are intimate? How do we decide what is true; or do we decide at all?
Gay’s women shoot to kill, too; although I won’t get into that, because, well, it would spoil the stories, violate the secrets. Mostly the ladies of Lewis County are cold-hearted and restless, whores and heartbreakers; and a man can’t live without them. The paperhanger’s employer, the wife of a wealthy doctor,
flirted with him, backed away, flirted again. She would treat him as if he were a stain on the bathroom rug and then stand close by him while he worked until he was dizzy with the smell of her, with the heat that seemed to radiate off her body. She stood by him while he knelt painting baseboards and after an infinite moment leaned carefully the weight of a thigh against his shoulder […] He laughed and turned his face into her groin. She gave a strangled cry and slapped him hard […] You filthy beast, she said.
When making love to his cheating wife in “A Death in the Woods,”
Marvelously, his hand passed through [her naked breast] into nothing, past the brown nipple and the soft flesh and the almost imperceptible resistance of the rib cage and into a vast gulf of space where winds blew in perpetuity and the heart at its center was seized in bloody ice […] she was a ghost, less than that, like nothing at all.
It is not uncommon for Gay’s women characters to agree to have sex with their jilted, supplicating ex-husbands/boyfriends for money; in each case it is a crossroads, a test failed, a moment of reckoning. It is the moment when a man realizes he’s been looking for love in the wrong place.
Interestingly, the final story of I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down portrays a profoundly beautiful, albeit tragic and forbidden, love between a man and a woman. Here, the woman is given to us as courageous and fully human:
He thought for a moment her eyes looked frightened then he saw that more than fear they showed confusion. She looked stunned, as if life had blindsided her so hard it left her knees weak and the taste of blood in her mouth. He wanted to cure her, save her, jerk her back from the edge as she’d tried to do for him.
We note the hard turn in Gay’s depiction of a female character, and yet we are not jarred by it; his reverence for Woman and for love of Woman has been there all along, but buried deep and seen through the unlovely distortions, the darkened lens, of a romantic whose guts have bled nearly dry.
The only divine laws in Gay’s Tennessee are those of the natural world, both harsh and merciful. A vast stretch of wild acreage called The Harrikin (the name originated from “hurricane” after a storm ripped through the place in the ’30s) features prominently in the action and in the characters’ inner landscapes. Company-owned and once mined for iron ore at the turn of the century, by the ’20s and ’30s the iron ore dried up and the work with it. Shacks that served as living quarters for workers, mining machinery, a post office and a commissary, dangerous mine shafts—all of it was abandoned and never redeveloped or sold. “No one lived there, and there were miles of unbroken timber you couldn’t work your way through with a road map in one hand and a compass in the other” (from “Sugarbaby”). It’s a wilderness in every sense, a place to where characters flee when pursued, where fringe types have been forced to dwell provisionally; and it must be ventured and crossed en route to freedom, or at least the elusive idea of it. Finis Beasley, the old-timer in “Sugarbaby” who is fleeing the law because of a domestic dispute (guns, women, dogs), is someone who knows just what the Harrikin threatens and offers: “miles of uninhabited woods smothered in rain and darkness and he drew a small bitter comfort from it.”
And that bitter comfort sought by characters like Beasley—along with other old-timers who want nothing more than to hold on to what little they have and to die as they lived—is at the heart of Gay’s moral vision. In this hardscrabble world, the only sense of “right” that I can detect is rooted in dignity, the entitlement of independence after a long, hard life; what’s “wrong” in the world (the law, the government, and those who hold power therein) is how everything conspires against the stubbornness—Gay might say moral core, or staying power—of an imperfectly decent man. If ever there was an author that, say, a liberal politician representing urban America might like to read for an inside-out understanding of backwoods libertarianism, Gay just might be the one. The law isn’t working for these folks, it is primarily a tool of dispossession and greed; when faced with a choice—be stripped of what matters to you and keep what doesn’t, or else throw everything over—a man behaves in extreme ways.
Critics of Gay cite his sometimes high Latinate prose, which we see mostly in passages where consciousness and the natural world layer together, as “overinsistent” and “self-conscious” (Charles D’Ambrosio, Paste Magazine). For example:
Here the weary telluric dark past and present intersected seamlessly and he saw how there was no true beginning or end and all things once done were done forever and went spreading outward faint and fainter and that the face of a young girl carried at once within it a bitter worn harridan and past that the satinpillowed death’s head of the grave.
Regarding plot he has been said to “overplay his hand” (Richard Bernstein, New York Times). Art Winslow wrote in 2001 that Gay shared Wolfe’s and McCarthy’s “propensity to risk overrichness.” For some readers, yes, all this overage will be a turnoff, minimalists beware (although D’Ambrosio does praise Gay’s more colloquial prose, which often comes in the form of “keen” and “bleakly funny” dialogue).
For this reader, ultimately, “risking overrichness” is code for “desperately in love with words,” and “overplaying” the expression of a world view that sees high drama and profound connectedness in all things. In Gay’s hands, these add up to a book as a living, affecting, devastating thing; well worth both his risk and ours. It took 40 years for his world and his words to reach the rest of us. Perhaps “late,” perhaps right on time. The patience that develops from such a journey is evident, however: at the Clarksville reading a woman said that she hoped his fourth novel, The Lost Country, publication of which has been delayed for over a year, would be published soon. Gay responded, simply, “Me, too.”