The saddest story the novelist William Gay ever told didn’t appear in one of his books.
In a 2009 interview for Chapter 16, I asked him what the people around his hometown of Hohenwald thought about his literary success. Gay was a self-taught writer; he didn’t go to college and spent most of his life painting houses and hanging drywall. Soon after his first story appeared, in The Georgia Review in 1998, a neighbor asked him who was helping him write. “What do you mean by that?” he asked. “And she said, ‘Well, I knew your family a long time, and they’re not that smart. I knew you when you were younger, and you’re not that smart. I was wondering if you had somebody who took out the little words and put in the big words.'”
The story zeroes in on the necessary tragedy of Gay’s work, which he set almost exclusively in 1950s Middle Tennessee. There are writers who can capture the mood of a place from the comforts of Austin or Berkeley or Oxford. But Gay’s writing doesn’t capture Middle Tennessee; it is Middle Tennessee, as much a part of the landscape as its fields and barns and creeks. Every turn of phrase, every scene describes with effortless perfection the curve of a hill, the angle of an eave, the lilt in a drawl.
That sort of thing can’t be phoned in, no matter how good the writer. Had Gay merely been from rural Tennessee—had he gone off to college, maybe earned an MFA, lived in New York—he might have written similar stories, maybe even been more famous for them. But they wouldn’t be alive with the lived authenticity that makes his fiction so intensely real and important.
Unfortunately, Gay felt, rural Tennessee was never what one would call a literary-minded place. At least the woman in Gay’s story took notice of his work. Most of the time, he told me, people didn’t seem to care one way or another. As his fame grew, he took to living for stretches in Oxford, Mississippi, or at various writers’ colonies. But he never stayed away too long; his home was also his creative life source. And that’s the tragedy: to be William Gay, he had to live in a world that didn’t appreciate William Gay.
The irony is that untold thousands of fans outside Hohenwald did appreciate William Gay, which brings us to his latest posthumous book, The Lost Country. After his death in 2012, rumors circulated about several “lost” manuscripts in various states of completion. The first, Little Sister Death, appeared in 2015. It is obviously incomplete; it ends abruptly. The status of The Lost Country, the new novel, is less definitive. It seems complete, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. But where the structure and pacing of Little Sister Death are tight and compelling right up to the last cut-off word, this new novel is uneven, with a structure and pacing that feel unbalanced.
Gay died suddenly, without a will, and it’s impossible to know whether this was meant to be the novel’s final draft, or whether it’s some intermediary version of a book that Gay intended to publish someday. Some characters are fully fleshed out, only to disappear in the text; others, who end up with major roles toward the end, are thinner than paper. These are not mistakes William Gay would make.
What makes The Lost Country worth reading is Gay’s descriptive mastery, more mature and on fuller display here than even his best, earlier efforts. Moths “gutter” in a kerosene lamp; a character recalls the “wetanimal smell” of his father’s hat.
But the book is more than well-chosen words. While Gay hasn’t entirely abandoned his McCarthy-esque feel for the rural gothic, The Lost Country contains little explicit violence, save for some brief climactic scenes. Nor is there much in the way of plot, at least in the overarching-events-in-a-line sense. Gay is much more interested in mood and texture—in particular the mood and texture of rural Tennessee in the 1950s, on the cusp of entering the modern world.
Some characters live middle-class lives, with running water and jobs selling used cars and insurance, while others are plumbing-less dirt farmers, and the line between them is indeterminate. Everyone in the book is struggling for meaning—direction, purpose, status, desire, permanence, whatever it takes to pull them up from the anonymous poverty of their past. “In all their beds in all their shotgun shacks they lay burled against the quilts in agonized crucifixion,” Gay writes, “their troubled dreams biased by the enormous tug of gravity from the invisible and lost country they had come from.”
At the center of the story is Billy Edgewater, a recently discharged naval enlistee traveling from the West Coast to East Tennessee, where his father lies dying. Billy has lost his money and papers, or so he says, and he pokes along, relying on the kindness of strangers. Most of the book revolves around his adventures, of which there are many. Gripping, comic—often laugh-out-loud funny—they pull the story along fast enough that the reader rarely stops to ask where it’s all going.
Edgewater is a quiet, basically decent man with “innocent, luminous eyes” who brings misfortune to most of the people who cross his path. We first meet him in Memphis, where he helps a female cop retrieve a motorcycle left to her in a will; a few hours later she has to sell it to pay his bail after he gets into a bar fight. Hitchhiking, he takes up with an amiable con artist named Roosterfish; after a close brush with death splits them up, Edgewater lands with another likeable lout, Bradshaw, who brings him back to his parents and sister in Ackerman’s Field—a fictional town that recurs in Gay’s fiction, not unlike William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Edgewater falls in with Bradshaw’s sister, and out with the town bully, and the tensions among those three give the book a late-chapter narrative boost.
Edgewater’s journey is at once quixotic and driven-it’s never quite clear by what, nor is he the most reliable of narrators. There are hints of great pain in his past, of wrongs committed by him and against him. But his real hunger is internal. Like “an acolyte to some obscure and aberrant offshoot of Buddhism,” he seeks a life unburdened by the outside world. “This moment is all there is,” he says near the end of the book. “What I have in this moment, like the very moment, is all there is.” Only then can he release himself from being a burden on others, and himself, and feel free.
I read every word of The Lost Country with hunger—Gay is the sort of writer who could make tax forms exciting—but none more than those of last several pages. As a resolution to Edgewater’s existential predicament, his hillbilly nirvana may be a bit of a cop out. But I went back over those pages several times, looking for meaning beyond their confines. Are they also a clue to what Gay himself was after? Through his writing, his burrowing into himself and his surroundings, might he also have been looking for a similar release from it all?
[To read Chapter 16‘s exclusive excerpt from The Lost Country, click here.]
Nashville native Clay Risen is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination, American Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit, and The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in New York, where he is the deputy op-ed editor of The New York Times.