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William Gay’s Stoneburner in review

April 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Stoneburner+cover+black+sides.jpg

William Gay has two new novels out this year, which is a little strange since he died in 2012, but the life of William Gay was nothing if not strange. I first read him around the time of his death, happening upon copies of his novels The Long Home and Provinces of Night in a discount store in my hometown. I enjoyed those enough to send away for a copy of what I believe to be his best novel, Twilight, and an obscure little collection called Wittgenstein’s Lolita. Then in Sydney I found a copy of the superlative collection I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down, and I’d read just about the complete published works of William Gay.

Turns out that was just the tip of the iceberg.

After Gay’s death, I turned up snippets on the internet about at least two other unpublished novels. The Lost Country had supposedly been coming out for years, and here was this other thing called Little Sister, Death that was to be published by Dzanc. The book came out in 2015 and I duly read it, thinking it interesting but below the standard of his best work, and I thought that would be it.

Nope. Still more iceberg.

Soon, I started reading about another unpublished novel, Stoneburner, that was to be released by newly-formed Anomolaic Press. For this, artist Paul Nitsche designed the cover based on one of Gay’s paintings. Like Harry Crews said, a man’s gotta have a little enthusiasm, and so I’m probably about the first person in Australia to read William Gay’s ‘film noir on paper.’

Stoneburner as a physical object is exceptional. It’s a handsome hardbacked volume with a cover painting that would have fit perfectly on Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Better yet, there’s a long essay on the author’s life and writing by J. M. White, who edited the volume and, as we learn in his piece, much more besides. I recall that White also wrote a piece on Gay in Wittgenstein’s Lolita, so I wasn’t surprised to find his words here.

This is where it gets really strange, and where the life of William Gay resembles not so much the life of a venerated Southern author but that of one of the characters in a Samuel Beckett play. So it seems that, at the time of his death, the author’s manuscripts and papers were in a state of disrepair. To put it mildly. White managed to track down a massive amount of material in the musty attics of various relatives, and then set about the gargantuan task of putting it in order. You’ll have to read White’s piece for the details, but suffice to say that it was a labour of love for which William Gay aficionados worldwide, including this one, will be forever grateful.

If that isn’t enough, turns out there’s even more unpublished material. Not only Little Sister, Death. Not only Stoneburner. Not just the forthcoming The Lost Country. Apparently there’s at least one more collection of short stories and a fourth posthumous novel, Fugitives of the Heart. Looks like William Gay’s going to have an literary afterlife more along the lines of a Franz Kafka. In White’s piece, I also learned that Gay wrote Stoneburner decades ago, but decided not to offer it for publication due to the release of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. And thus the manuscript sat collecting dust for at least another decade.

To the novel itself, then. Stoneburner is typical of Gay’s work in that it initially features a ‘bad man’, in this case the ageing tough-guy Frank ‘Cap’ Holder, and a much younger man, the unhinged Thibodeux. The novel is split into two parts: the first narrated in the third person by Thibodeux, and the second by his fellow Vietnam vet Stoneburner. There’s always a beautiful young vixen in these kind of stories, and here it’s Cathy Meecham, whom Thibodeux learns has ‘GOOD PUSSY’ via toilet graffiti. This first section reminds me strongly of Larry Brown’s work, especially Father and Son, although Gay’s novel was possibly written before Brown quit the fire department of Oxford, Mississippi. Set in 1974, the first part of the novel is a good ol’ yarn about drug deals gone wrong (nearly as wrong as in No Country for Old Men), cars skidding down embankments, young love, shotguns and drunken violence.

Unfortunately, Stoneburner loses its way somewhat in the second part. Narrated in the first person by Stoneburner, whom we learn fought in Vietnam with Thibodeux, the story meanders around for a good fifty pages or more before finally kicking up a gear toward the end. There’s a lot of beautiful writing along the way, perhaps not as refined as in Gay’s other published novels, but that’s to be expected of a work that it seems he never even had typed, let alone submitted to a publisher. I suspect that this may also be why Dzanc passed on Stoneburner despite committing to publish two other posthumous works, but let that not dissuade you. J. M. White and the team at Anomolaic Press have done a service to literature in bringing Stoneburner to life.

Fugitives of the Heart next?

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Country Noir: My Journey to the Rough South

June 7, 2015 2 comments

It’s not often that you can pinpoint the reading of a particular book as life-changing. Rummaging through a box of a stranger’s discarded books in 2009, my eye was caught by the cover of Harry Crews’ A Feast of Snakes. I hadn’t heard of the author, but the reading of this, the fiercest and bleakest of ‘country noir’ novels (a term coined by Daniel Woodrell), compelled me to track down and read every book the man had written, which took me through to some time in 2010. Much of Crews’ work falls short of this standard, but some of it is very fine indeed. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Crews was my entree into the world of what is often called Southern Gothic literature. Crews, from Bacon County, Georgia, wrote the seminal A Childhood: The Biography of a Place about his early life, and the various snippets of interviews with him that can be found on youtube make for absorbing and often hilarious viewing. Crews died in 2012, a couple of years after I discovered his work, and it won’t be long before I’m ready to re-read the fifteen or so novels I devoured so eagerly in 2009-10.

 

In 2010 I also read my second Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country for Old Men, which I enjoyed immensely (the film is outstanding too). I was less taken in by James Whorton Jr’s novels Approximately Heaven and Frankland, which I felt to be ‘Crews lite’ (to be fair, almost anything Southern could be described as such). Crews spoke reverently of his literary forebear Flannery O’Connor many times, so I obtained the Library of America edition of her complete works, but I wasn’t especially enamoured with her first novel, Wise Blood, and the rest remained unread for the time being. In 2011 I read McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I found heavy going, but precious little else in this genre. Other than Crews, I hadn’t yet discovered authors I would bond with.

2012 proved to be an important year for me in this regard. As often seems to happen when you so diligently trawl remaindered book piles in newsagents and discount stores, I discovered William Gay (pictured above) quite by accident. I was extremely impressed with his stately prose in The Long Home, Provinces of Night and especially Twilight, and a couple of years later I very much enjoyed his stories in I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down. Gay died that same year, a month before Harry Crews, but I’ve recently learned that a ‘lost’ novel of his, Little Sister, Death is to be published later this year. Gay saw himself as an acolyte of McCarthy but, initially at least, I preferred the work of the apprentice to that of the master. Gay was born in Tennessee and much of his work is set there. 2012 and 2013 were also the years I read virtually all of Daniel Woodrell (pictured below), starting with Winter’s Bone. I enjoyed pretty much all of Woodrell, but especially Tomato RedThe Death of Sweet Mister and the author’s most recent, The Maid’s Version. Much of Woodrell’s work is set in the Missouri Ozarks, perhaps not Southern in geography but certainly in tenor.

I’d read a couple of novels by Larry Brown (pictured below) previously but, like in the case of McCarthy, I was a little less enthusiastic and seemed to read only one or two of his titles a year. I liked Joe but not Fay, and it wasn’t until 2014 that I finally read a Brown novel I fully enjoyed (his first, Dirty Work). By now I’ve read most of Brown, including Jean W. Cash’s biography. His second collection of stories, Big Bad Love, is currently enroute, and I couldn’t get through The Rabbit Factory as it reminded me of Crews’ late and not so amazing work. As mentioned above, Brown saw himself as a follower of Crews (he has an essay on this subject), but when William Gay was first published in 1999, he was seen as a ‘new Larry Brown’ (even though he was considerably older). Brown was the first of these authors to die, far too young, in 2004.

Like I’ve said, I’d been reading Cormac McCarthy on and off for years, starting with The Road in 2008, which I saw more in the context of dystopian fiction at the time. I read the ‘Border Trilogy’ out of sequence (The Crossing in 2012, All the Pretty Horses in 2013 and Cities of the Plain in 2015), and I recently enjoyed Child of God. This leaves me with three of the author’s early novels, The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark and Suttree (enroute), and a couple of recent titles. In many ways, McCarthy is the granddaddy of the writers discussed here, born earliest (1933), published first (1965), and now the oldest (81). In this regard he reminds me of another long-living writer-patriarch, William S. Burroughs, who might himself have had more of a place in this conversation were he not so widely and perhaps incorrectly known as a Beat writer.

And then there’s the rest. By the time of this writing, I’ve managed to read five novels by North Dakota native Larry Watson without enjoying his work very much. I liked Montana, 1948 and Orchard, but found In a Dark TimeSundown, Yellow Moon and American Boy dull and staid. Perhaps it’s because while Watson is certainly a ‘country’ author, he’s by no means Southern? My problem with Ohio born Donald Ray Pollock is somewhat the opposite in that I found his novel The Devil All the Time and collection Knockemstiff too dark and horrible without any kind of redemptive feature at all. Nor did I appreciate the only James Lee Burke novel I have read, The Tin Roof Blowdown (too trashy), although I did like his early collection The Convict and Other Stories. I fully expected to take to the works of New Orleans native Elmore Leonard, but I didn’t think a great deal of Rum Punch or Tishomingo Blues and thus I haven’t yet read further. I’ve read one James Sallis (pictured below) novel, Drive, and I have a further two enroute in Cypress Grove and Cripple Creek. I’ve recently read a few of Flannery O’Connor’s stories (especially enjoying ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’) but I wasn’t at all a fan of Philip Meyer’s much hyped American Rust or John Grisham’s A Painted House.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that these authors, with the exception of Flannery O’Connor, are all white American males. It has been a source of some consternation to me for years now that 90% of my influences and literary idols are men, but try as I might, I can’t seem to find females authors I enjoy to the same extent, with the exception of US crime writer Megan Abbott and English literary author Pat Barker. Nor have I failed to notice that most of my influences are American. Of the twenty authors I consider most important to me (only some of them mentioned here), eleven are Americans, six are from the U.K., and the only ‘Australian’ author, Peter Temple, was born in South Africa. What does this mean? Am I a reader and writer out of step with the Australian society around me? Should I pack up and move to the Rough South, or is there a place for me here in country Western Australia?

 

 

Book Review – The Road by Cormac McCarthy

February 12, 2009 Leave a comment

theroad

This is the kind of book that sticks in the mind long after you’ve finished reading it. I know this because I first read it nearly a year ago, and it’s still fresh in my mind now on the second reading. It’s not often I feel the urge to re-read a book within a year either. My admiration for this immensely popular novel – The Road by Cormac McCarthy – can partly be explained by my morbid love for tales of the post-apocalypse, but there’s more to it than that. This is simply the most searingly bleak novel I’ve ever read, and among the most gripping. There it is in a nutshell – reading The Road is a singular experience, uniquely toxic and unremittingly bleak.

I found this impossible to review after the first reading, and I feel I’m going to struggle here on the second. Let’s start with what this doesn’t have. The Road doesn’t have many characters at all. The main protagonists, a man and his son, remain nameless throughout the text. There isn’t much of a world to write about either. After some nameless apocalypse, the environment seems to be in a state of terminal decline. It reads somewhat like a tale of a nuclear winter, but it’s not that. If I were to guess, I’d say the catastrophe were some illness in the sun itself or the earth’s orbit. Whatever. It’s terminal. I can’t emphasise this enough. This is the bleakest setting in fiction, ever. The Road doesn’t have a complex plot, and nor is it arranged in chapters or sections. What we have is a series of shortish sections, some as brief as a couple of lines, describing (for the most part) the minute to minute trials of the two survivors.
There’s something else The Road doesn’t have much of at all:  punctuation. ‘Don’t’ is written as ‘dont’ etc and there are precious few commas. No speech marks. At first I found this pretentious, grating, but you do get used to it. Whether this is a McCarthy trademark I can’t say. I suspect it is. The book doesn’t have much in the way of literary style either. It’s mostly written in clipped, Hemingway-esque prose. This seems appropriate given the bleak subject matter. But, oddly, McCarthy throws in a number of difficult words (like ‘granitic’ on page 1). If I were a more diligent reader, I’d surely have been reaching for the dictionary on several occasions.

I just mentioned that McCarthy doesn’t seem to me to be a literary writer. This is an important point, for what The Road does do extremely well is describe the minutae of this journey across a mostly frozen, ashen landscape. I get the idea that the author knows a lot about hiking, camping, fishing etc. A lot about survival. He deploys this knowledge very convincingly here. A different author might have been more concerned with image, with philosophy, given this subject matter, by McCarthy keeps us very definitely rooted to the ground. This is a massive strength, as the novel becomes one of the most visceral reading experiences imaginable. There’s little wonder that Hollywood has rushed to turn this into a film: it’s virtually a film already. It just needs shooting. The sensory experience of reading this novel is a wonderful thing.

This is a shocking book. There’s nowhere to hide in it, and McCarthy does not spare us the gruesome details of precisely how humanity comes to an end. A number of scenes are so affronting that I had to read them again and again. Without wanting to divulge some of these details, suffice to say that a great number of people die, have died, or continue to exist in the most depraved and hopeless circumstances imaginable. Having said this, McCarthy doesn’t go overboard with the gore either. It is this careful selection of horrific detail that continues to shock this reader as the novel progressed. McCarthy is simply making us aware of just how frail our so-called civilisation really is, how transient and conditional our values. It isn’t a pretty sight.

The Road doesn’t have paragraphs either; I’ve just noticed. What we have are blocks of texts cut with white space. That’s it. There’s almost nothing to drive the narrative forward.  Strangely, the narrative gallops forward at a brisk pace. The only motivation the man has is in trying to protect the life of his son. Despite this, things go from bad to worse in the first half of the novel. Life couldn’t be any worse than this. In this regard, The Road is somewhat reminiscent of Beckett’s novels. It’s the best comparison I can think of. But the difference is that in Beckett, the sterility is in the thinking of the characters and the narrative itself, whereas here it is in the external setting. This is a book that basically reads itself. It’s not easy to put down, and I suspect that a great many people first read it cover to cover, as I did. It’s hard to imagine greater praise for a book than to say it demands to be read. The Road demands to be read.