The first words of Harry Crews’ first book, The Gospel Singer, are:
Enigma, Georgia was a dead end. The courthouse had been built square in the middle of highway 229 where it stopped abruptly on the edge of Big Harrikan Swamp like a cut ribbon.
This is geography as metaphysics, and I can never read about the Big Harrikan Swamp without thinking of it. William Gay’s horrifying Twilight followed Crews into the literary Harrikan. Now Crews, who died on March 28 at age 76, has followed Gay all too closely into that bigger, scarier Harrikan that eats us all.
Before that was Barry Hannah, and before that Larry Brown. It’s hard not to notice the way the obituaries make all of these writers sound the same, when they don’t in their own prose. An excessive journalistic focus on their hard-scrabble lives creates the illusion of a school: the rough-and-tumble “Southern Writers.” It’s true enough that the manners described by Hannah, Brown, Gay, and Crews were those of the mid-to-late twentieth century South. However, the mystery each grasps at in his own way extends beyond any real-life coordinates. In Crews’ case, when we look past the haggard face and the thrilling biography full of fights and fornication, we find a fictional world closer to the Eastern Europe of Kafka and Hrabal than to today’s good ole boy.
I first heard about Crews when I was trying to write a novel about people I’d known when I was living in South Carolina with a stripper several years my senior. I was embarrassed of my novel and of South Carolina. I’d tried my hardest to get the hell out of there — to become unSouthern. But as any Southerner who is a writer and an exile knows, it only really gets in your blood once you’re gone. I wasn’t trying to convince myself I didn’t hate it, like Quentin Compson; I was trying to convince myself I did. A friend, seeing my struggle, suggested I try Harry Crews.
I picked up A Feast of Snakes and was astounded by how radically unSouthern its South was. The book had all the tropes of a “Southern Novel,” sure — alliterative names, bootleg whiskey, dog-fights — but it pushed them so far as to blow them to kingdom come. Which was what I’d been waiting for. I’d read a ton of Faulkner and all of Flannery O’Connor, but, with apologies to Faulkner, the past is, after a certain point, past. (Today, it’s hard to believe that when O’Connor went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, nobody could understand what she was saying. Southern kids text “OMG” like everyone else.) Crews’ book had come out the year I was born, and yet, as I read it at the turn of the millennium, I saw an old coot way out-doing what I thought was new; this wasn’t past at all. Joe Lon, Berenice, and all the snake freaks, dog-fighters, and castrated cops pushed the real South I knew into an ecstatic, rhapsodic space. It was right next door and out of this world.
In a lot of ways, Crews’ irreverence toward regional tradition is to be expected. With World War I, generation displaced region as the primary literary category, Malcolm Cowley once argued. This seems pretty sound today. We don’t really talk about “Midwestern literature” post-Sherwood Anderson (or maybe Saul Bellow). “New England literature” sends us all the way back to Emerson and Thoreau. Yet you still hear “Southern Literature” all the time. It resounds like the drone-string of a banjo every time one of these old white rebel novelists dies.
There is still plenty of debate about the implications of the term. Marc Smirnoff, editor of the Oxford American, recently wrote a controversial essay attacking an upstart, upscale rival, Garden and Gun, for “white washing” the South. I like Garden and Gun, but I loved Smirnoff’s attack — except that much of his criticism applies equally well to his own pages. Why does the Oxford American have to be a magazine of “good Southern Writing?” It might not fetishize the South in precisely the same way as Garden and Gun (or Southern Living, to which Smirnoff compares G&G), but it still fetishizes it. There are amazing writers in the South — Suzanne Hudson is the best, in my opinion; seriously check out In A Temple of Trees — but they aren’t good because they’re Southern. So maybe the most fitting tribute we could pay to Harry Crews’ achievement is to bury the term “Southern Literature” alongside him.
But we need Southern Lit, you might say. The South is different — they’re crazy down there — and we require a certain quota of drunk, hard-living scribblers in order to understand them. I’d reply that that’s precisely the reason Southern Literature should be kicked to death like the dog, Tuffy, in Feast of Snakes — with a vicious brutal love. Because it is not the job of Harry Crews to school you on the quaint anthropology of a foreign region or to make you feel better about living there. It is his job to take you to a different Georgia, Enigma and Mystic, a Georgia of the mind. Crews is not a romantic writer, but his works are now being romanticized — and civilized. The Southern Lit industry tells us what to expect when we read these dead gritty Southern white dudes. But the only way to do justice to the sledgehammer prose of Crews — to allow it to do its work — is to kill off the genre, sacrificing the adjective “Southern” for the sake of what really matters here, which is Literature.
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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.”