I first met William Gay when I was teaching at Motlow State Community College in Tullahoma. He had come to do a reading and, of course, had blown the doors off the place. Our students, most of whom worked full-time jobs in addition to going to school, reacted to him like they hadn’t with other visiting writers we’d had. These were rural Tennessee kids, and you could just see the whole world of books and writing opening up to them as he read from his novel, The Long Home. Here was a man who spoke as they spoke, who looked like someone they might have worked with or been related to, who had worked the same kind of jobs they had. It was as if a light had on gone on in their heads: This life I’m living, here in Tullahoma, working to make ends meet, is worthy of being told.
What they felt that night was what anyone felt who had the chance to spend a little time with William, namely that you were in the presence of something authentic. The real deal. After the reading, I invited William back to my house for a visit. He didn’t know me, but I mentioned that I had some beer and that I really liked Cormac McCarthy. These two facts seemed to do the trick. Back at my place, we passed through the kitchen, grabbed our beers, and headed toward the den. This proved an elusive destination for William because en route he had come across my bookcase. It was here that he stopped, or set up shop, rather. I went on in and put on some music, then joined him again in front of the books. For the next forty minutes or so, we stood there, never quite able to make it fully into the den, pulling out book after book and talking about it. We talked specifically about scenes we liked, and how the writing conveyed what it needed to convey. Three scenes I remember off-hand were: The turtle crossing the road in Grapes of Wrath (point of view), Rufus walking home with his dad after seeing the Chaplin movie in A Death in the Family (voice and tone), and Harrogate’s amorous adventure in the watermelon patch in Suttree (good ole-fashioned romance).
It soon became apparent that there was no book in my collection that he hadn’t read. And apparent as well that William had something very near a photographic memory. His recall was uncanny. Eventually we did make it into the den, where my wife and a few friends were waiting. Seeing all my CDs in one convenient browsing spot, William plopped down on the floor and began looking at these. Again, there was no music I had that he wasn’t familiar with, be it John Lee Hooker, Coltrane, or Waylon Jennings. He smiled as he pulled out each new CD, sometimes offering a comment on its production or inspiration, sometimes just grinning fondly to himself as if he was seeing an old friend. I suggested he just go ahead and DJ for us, and this was an idea he could embrace. So that was how the night went on, a late late night as my wife just reminded me: William on the floor in front of the stereo, a bottle of beer beside him, some books he liked scattered about, and Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, the Innocent, & the E-Street Shuffle cranking out into the night.