Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Sentences That Warmed the Air

A bookstore owner remembers William Gay’s first public reading

I first met William Gay when he came to our bookstore to sign his first novel. When he arrived no one would have taken him for the author. He looked like what he was: a modest man, a worker in sheetrock (go ahead, enjoy the metaphors embedded there). I greeted him warmly. I had just read The Long Home and admired it very much.

He was quiet, shy. He spoke in a whispery murmur that still carried that Old South weight in it. Almost a rasp, the singing the wind might use after a few belts of Jack Daniels. I asked him how he was. He told me he was scared to death. Apparently, if I am not misremembering, this was to be his first public reading. I did what I could to make him more relaxed. I told him it was his night and that he could handle it any way he wanted. Reading, no reading, whatever. He smiled a tight smile.

Of course he did read that night, and it was wonderful. His sentences warmed the air. And he was a hit, a major hit, with the crowd who came to hear him. There were others in attendance who had also read the novel, and comparisons, which would later become common, were batted about: Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Barry Hannah.

I saw William Gay a few other times at other author events. I wasn’t his friend but I felt a special affection for him. He seemed at all times, the way he did that first evening, like a humble and genuine fellow whose great gift of voice appeared even a surprise to him.

I paraphrase here what I heard said of another writer who died with books still in him: His passing makes me doubly sad. Not only no more William Gay, but no more William Gay books.