I am in the habit of slipping objects between the pages of whatever book I am reading: sometimes to mark a place, more often because a book is the safest place I know for letters or receipts or tickets or whatever I need to bring with me somewhere.
I have carried books for over two decades of adult life now, years spent largely in Illinois and New York, but also on vacations and trips that go much farther afield. Earlier this month, I went through every book in our Manhattan apartment to see what I could discover. This meant flipping pages in roughly 700 books, mostly novels, but also poetry books, memoirs, and essays, searching for pieces of my own history.
The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy
A slim copy request slip from Columbia’s writing program, circa 1999. I was workshopping my first novel and adjusting to life in New York City. McCarthy’s rustic prose was like a postcard from the woodsy plain in Michigan where I grew up. On the flip side of the slip, a handwritten list of obscure words in the text I admired — slewed, purl, wale, rictus — words that, alas, I then tried to jam into my own doomed manuscript.
The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan
Torn strips of paper mark dozens of poems that I liked as an undergraduate at Northwestern, back when I wanted to be a penniless poet when I grew up. I remember announcing this career path to my parents one chilly bright autumn afternoon while we milled outside Ryan Field before a football game. They took the news remarkably well. Today, I remember nothing of what drew the 20-year-old me to poems like “The Frightened Man” or “Betrothed.”
John Adams by David McCullough
A full sheet (minus one) of Forever Stamps from the U.S. Post Office. The picture on the stamps: the Liberty Bell, of course
Stamboul Train by Graham Greene:
Two colorful ticket stubs, mementoes from an official starting point of my own: Flight 438 from Lisbon to Paris on May 30, 2004, Seats 23E and 23F, one for me and one for my wife, Raina, on the flight back home from our honeymoon.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The business card of a Vice President of Strategy for Razorfish, a major Internet consultancy in the ‘00s — and perhaps the strangest bedfellow possible for a book about Stalinist oppression. But these were my late-20s, a time of routine contradictions, when I fancied myself a professional Web geek by day but a self-serious failed novelist at the night.
Christine Falls by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black)
The inspection certificate for our brand new Toyota RAV-4 from May 6, 2009. Despite having sworn never to have a car in the city again, Raina and I leased the Toyota because our daughter was two and we wanted to improve our ability to flee for the suburbs and the helpful hands of her parents whenever our nascent parenting skills failed us.
A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford
Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell
The floor plan for the apartment that Raina and I moved into in 2011, right before our son — our second child — was born. Our new neighborhood’s streets were littered with more trash than our previous, and car alarms would trumpet the start of the work day for livery drivers at 6 a.m., but the apartment felt big enough for all four of us, plus our dog, and in New York City having enough space means having everything.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
A yellow Post-It note that says “Waverly and Mercer” and “penne and chocolato,” written in my hand. I know I met many friends near the intersection of these two Village streets over the years — before we’d get pints of Belhaven at Swift or maybe cheap margaritas at Caliente Cab Company — but the meaning has gone just as those friends have left for Westport, Conn., or Chicago, Ill., or wherever friends go.
For 10 years, from 2003 through 2013, I commuted from New York to New Jersey each day — an hour each way. I used to tell people that I didn’t mind, because I had so much time to read books. And it’s true, I did a lot of reading then. But I did mind. I slipped three off-peak round trip passes for New Jersey Transit trains in the Beattie; 4 more receipts and three canceled tickets in the Baldwin; and, in the Sartre, six receipts, more than six round trips, perhaps a signal of how hard I worked to find joy in that joyless fusion of philosophy and fiction.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
City of Glass by Paul Auster; A Rage to Live by John O’Hara; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; The 9/11 Commission Report; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson; Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima; and on and on.
During that long commuting decade, I often took not just the New Jersey Transit train but also a local tram in Newark. To ride the Downtown line, I had to buy a lavender ticket from a machine at the top of a long escalator. On the platforms at select stops, conductors would surprise commuters and demand proof that we each had used the ticket punch clocks to validate our 50-cent passes. I find these lavender alibis slipped in the pages of dozens and dozens of books.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Inside this hardcover I find the phone number for a taxi company and words written in Spanish: Buena Vista Villas en la picinade abajo. Also, a receipt for a $26 car ride. I know that Raina and I were in Costa Rica for my brother’s wedding in 2005. But I don’t speak or write Spanish. And I don’t know where the taxi brought us.
The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee
A full-color 3×2 photo strip. Two duplicates of a portrait still from my daughter’s kindergarten year, her tiny face smiling out, forever five years old. I brought this book with me when I went to a writer’s retreat for a week in 2013. I tried but failed to engage in the Coetzee, never finished it. Spent a lot of time looking at the little girl.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A piece of notebook paper from 1999 with phrases from the text that I liked (“the smell of lavender,” “like a person who is listening to a sea-shell held to her ear”), and a toll-free telephone number. I dial the telephone digits now, curious, but a recording says the number is no longer in service.
The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Glück
There is, technically, nothing in this book. But it is hardly empty. I can still find the poem marked with a hard diagonal line at the page corner, as if the paper were folded over a knife. “Sooner or later you’ll begin to dream of me,” the poem promises. “I don’t envy you those dreams.” A haunting line called out by an ex-girlfriend who borrowed the book after we broke up. Two decades later, the curse has yet to come true.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Polaroid taken last year when it was my son’s turn to be in kindergarten: We are seated together in his classroom on a morning I don’t precisely remember — just as, I suppose, the father in The Buried Giant cannot quite recall his own son — although anyone can see this moment still matters by the bright and radiant looks on our faces. And will always matter, I like to think. Even if that’s not possible to prove.
After I finished this long walk through the books of the last 20 years, I asked myself whether I should leave the found objects or take them out. Should I strip the books clean for whoever comes through next — perhaps for my children when they are adults, if their taste in books resemble mine at all? Or shall I leave the objects more or less where I found them, a story-within-the-stories that tells the tale of one reader’s life for anyone who cares to sleuth out the details? This wasn’t a hard decision, as you’d guess. The objects go back. The page turns.
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.”