William Gay died on Thursday, February 23rd, at 68 years. In case you didn’t know, William Gay was a massive bad-ass of the Southern literary tradition. Think of a Larry Brown type figure, but with more emphasis on the gothic side of things. Like Brown, Gay was the real deal, a writer who thrived, eventually (he wasn’t published until 1999), completely outside the academy. He spent his life hanging dry wall, carpentering, and worshiping William Faulkner. It paid off.
Gay spent most of his life in Hohenwald, Tennessee. I have no idea what happens in Hohenwald, but I hear it contains an elephant sanctuary. So I’ve ascertained that great Southern writing and elephants might be closely related. (More thought on that idea later – Flannery O’Connor did have her own peacock farm, for example.)
But my point is this: if you live in Tennessee, or fancy yourself literary, you should read William Gay. Now. Not just for the sake of tribute, but because he was a damn good writer. Gay came to the Meacham Writers Workshop in Fall 2010. I had a chance to meet him. He is just as creepy-looking as any character in one of his novels or short stories, but he was a very humble man. When asked in workshop why he didn’t use quotation marks in his stories, he replied: “Well, Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use them, so I figured it’d be okay.”
We value the academy for helping our writing. Gay just happened to be one of the few exceptions. But we can’t all be sixty-year-old hermit-looking hard asses from the boondocks, sitting by a wood stove reading Blood Meridian with scuffed up, calloused hands from a days hard work. The real deal doesn’t come along often, but when they do, we should be grateful.
Truly great Southern writing emerges less often than other great writing, it may seem (I mean, hell, it’s a small part of the world). But when it does emerge, it tends to be exceptionally fearless in its language and storytelling. William Gay was one of the few who got to the soul of his region and put the time in to make it speak. We lost two of the great Southern writers in the past two years (Barry Hannah passed in ’10). So I ask you all, you literary folks, that next time you get together with your reading buddies, your writing buddies, or go out for a few beers — pay tribute to William Gay, a new ghost of the Southern literary tradition.
William Gay, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown are having beers together right now, fishing perhaps, knowing of the beyond, what all artists want to know.
William Gay wrote three novels and one proper collection of short stories. If you’re into film, watch “That Evening Sun”, a great one based off Gay’s story “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down”. Hal Holbrook, another ever-cool geezer, plays the protagonist.
So pay tribute to a great writer. Read him. Read Southern Lit; celebrate your region.
You know what? I don’t want to be preachy. Just have a damned beer on William Gay. I’ll be having several in his honor.