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Fiction Review   

Provinces of Night
by William Gay
Doubleday, 2001
ISBN: 038-549-9272

Not since Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses have I read such clear and poetic descriptions of the countryside in day or night. William Gay’s images are so sharp and precise they cut through the senses like a scalpel. His words weigh more than the content of their letters and are longer than they spell. His characters do not simply walk through life, they trudge against a boundary deeper than a hollow and harder than a cuestick against the side of the head of a hillbilly.

Sometimes, even in the dark of a night occupied by bats and owls, and other ghosts and goblins, what happens in William Gay’s world makes the reader chuckle with delight. His people have a way about them that’s both sad and humorous, filled with an irony that rises up from their roots, like when Fleming Bloodworth and his cousin Neal steal gallon jugs of moonshine from a bootlegger, color the liquor, and offer to sell the stuff back to him. “Fleming watched Early tilt a jug back and drink. Early’s neck was skinny and stringy as a turkey gobbler’s, his fistsize adam’s apple pumping the whiskey down. His eyes looked wide and wild as some startled animal’s. Fleming turned away and looked at the girl. Her face had the stunned vacuous look you’d see in a mental hospital, as if life had dealt up a card so high and wild she could not handle it, that had caused her mind to reel away in shock.”

Like Fleming Bloodworth’s granddaddy, old E.F. Bloodworth, William Gay’s got a tale to tell. Like the old man, the novelist sings songs he’d heard and some he made up, and they’re all worth reading. He conjures up a world out of the hills of east Tennessee with an occasional trip down into Alabama or over to Arkansas. Like the old man “sang about death as if it was the only kept promise out of all life’s false starts and switchbacks, all there was at the end of a dusty road,” William Gay finds wonderful humor and lowdown tragedy in the human condition he creates in the hill country around Ackerman’s Field, Tennessee.

Whether it’s a sweet girl’s quick kiss or the sharp cut from the blade of a hawkbill knife, William Gay’s words tremble with meaning, as “the old songs with juryrigged verses like bodies cobbled up out of bones from a thousand skeletons. Songs about death and lost love and rambling down the line because sometimes down the line was the only place left. Songs that treated the most desperate of loss with a dark sardonic humor. I’m going where the climate suits my clothes, the song said, not saying the frustration and despair that created it, saying that in the sheer lonesomeness of the sound, in the old man’s driving banjo.”

Provinces of Night is many things: a hill country ballad, a love story, a classic Southern tale, a parable as perfect as some of the best of Faulkner. Sometimes the novelist gets too wrapped up in his invented words, repeating them too often, destroying the effect. For the most part, however, he is right on the money, illuminating the dark spots of the heart and shadowing where a light is sure to fall.

I’m looking forward to more and more of William Gay’s funny-tragic stories. He’s left himself wide open for a sequel about Fleming Bloodworth and Raven Lee Halfacre and what happens to them. It is only the beginning of what promises to be one dynamite trip.

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews
 

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