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William Gay’s Stoneburner in review

April 25, 2018 Leave a comment

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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After Gay’s death, I turned up snippets on the internet about at least two other unpublished novels.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Soon, I started reading about another unpublished novel, Stoneburner, that was to be released by newly-formed Anomolaic Press.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?

 

 

2013 in Review: My Top Ten Reads

December 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Since 2008 I’ve been compulsively keeping records of every book I read, and this year I’ve read more than any year since 2008. As of the time of this writing, I’m up to 80 books read and I’ll certainly squeeze in a couple more before the year is out. That seems like an awful lot of books, most of them fiction. I know of one person who reads substantially more than I do in an average year (seasons greetings to Tehani Wessely), but no one else. Workmates can’t help but notice that not only do I have my nose in a book at just about any given time, but that the cover changes practically on a daily basis. Wrapped up in books, indeed.

So what did I read? About a third of these books can be classified as crime fiction. This year I continued to be enthralled by the works of Americans Megan Abbott and Daniel Woodrell, but I also read and enjoyed Australian crime writers Peter Temple and David Whish-Wilson for the first time. Probably another third fall under the loose category of literary fiction. This year I read pretty much all of Raymond Carver’s short fiction and I also discovered Zoe Heller.  And the rest are a grab-bag of young adult novels read for school (the best of which were The Hunger Games and Trash), speculative fiction (my recent Farewell to Science Fiction notwithstanding) and some non-fiction. In 2013 I also read literary journals in Meanjin and Overland.

Another focus for 2013 was reading more books by women. When I started recording my reading in 2008, I couldn’t help but notice that only 9 of the 59 books I read that year were by women. This year that figure is 26, about one third of the books I read. I continued to be impressed by the works of Megan Abbott and Pat Barker, both of whom feature in my top ten, but I also read and enjoyed works by JC Burke, Zoe Heller, Kaaron Warren, Felicity Castagna, Meg Mundell, Marianne de Pierres and Katie Stewart.

Onto the top ten, then. This isn’t a ranked list and I limited myself to one book per writer. I can wholeheartedly recommend these books to anyone and everyone. I’ve linked the images to the listing for each book on Goodreads.

The-End-of-Everything-UK

pat-barkers-tobys-roomwhat-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-love

9781936239610_p0_v3_s260x420The-Maids-Versionthousand-autumns-of-jacob-de-zoettrash-andy-mulligan

deliverance-dickey-def-54325515everything-you-know-by-zoe-heller

temple_the-broken-shore

The Completist – Authors I’ve Read Virtually Everything By

September 25, 2013 2 comments

Ah, lists. I love ’em and periodically I feel the urge to produce another one. Here’s a list of the authors I’ve read (and probably own) nearly everything by, with some brief thoughts on each of them.

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Megan Abbott 

She’s written six novels – I own and have read all six. My favourites are Queenpin and The End of Everything, but I like them all. I first encountered this author less than two years ago when I picked up a copy of her The Song Is You on a discount pile. I love discount piles.

J. G. Ballard

He wrote an awful lot, novels and stories, and I own and have read virtually all of it. Ballard had a profound impact on me at a crucial age (19-20), probably second only to Philip K. Dick in this regard. Ballard has definitely seeped his way into my writing subconscious. His essays are also extremely interesting – the man was nearly a genius. I recently read Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J. G. Ballard 1967-2008 and was duly blown away.

William S. Burroughs

Burroughs published a number of little chapbooks and other ephemera, so I can’t claim to have read everything he wrote, but I have at least 20-25 of his books and I’ve read numerous biographies and both volumes of his letters. I’ve even read Here to Go, his collaboration with Brion Gysin. I must have read Naked Lunch 5-6 times by now.

Pat Barker

I’m fairly new to Barker, only having discovered her in the past 3-4 years. I very much enjoyed her Regeneration Trilogy and was especially enamoured with the recent Toby’s Room. She’s an outstanding writer and there are 2-3 of her books that I’m still yet to read. I tend not to like her contemporary stuff as much as those books set in WWI.

Raymond Carver

In fact I hadn’t read a word of him until earlier this year, so it didn’t take me long to read all his short story collections (except for some posthumous stuff) and a biography to boot. Terrible person, amazing writer.

Raymond Chandler

Without Chandler I might still shy away from crime fiction. I was enraptured by novels like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye, and I’ve read some of his novels multiple times. I never really got into his short stories. I’ve also read numerous biographies and a book of his letters.

J. M. Coetzee

Coetzee only barely makes this list, simply because there are 5-6 of his books that I haven’t read as yet. But I’ve read at least 10 of them and enjoyed them for the most part. I especially liked Disgrace and his trilogy of memoirs. Coetzee can be dry at times, but at his best he has no peer and he is the spiritual successor to Samuel Beckett.

Harry Crews

Most of the writers on this list are pretty famous, but Crews decidedly isn’t, not anymore. Dead and more or less out of print, Crews is nevertheless on a par with the likes of Cormac McCarthy and William Gay, in my humble opinion. I’ve never read a fiercer book than his dark masterpiece A Feast of Snakes.

Philip K. Dick

What can I say about him that I haven’t said already? I’ve published a 40,000 word long article on his work in Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary 83 and I dedicated years to reading everything he wrote and everything wrote about him. That adds up to a hell of a lot and takes up about two shelves in my study. PKD is my number one influence as a writer, by far.

Graham Greene

The best prose stylist of the twentieth century, bar none. There, I’ve said it.

Barry N. Malzberg

Another mostly out-of-print writer, Malzberg was one of my favourite SF writers a decade or so ago. I had a fairly extensive email correspondence with the man a decade ago as well. His best novels include Underlay and Galaxies.

Maureen McHugh

I very much liked her novel Half the Day is Night many years back, and now I’ve managed to assemble her complete ouevre, even if there are a couple of things I haven’t read.

James Tiptree Jr.

In actual fact a woman by the name of Alice Sheldon, Tiptree is famous for some amazing short stories written mostly in the 1970s. I’ve read virtually all of them. “Her Some Rose Up Forever” is among the best.

Jeff Vandermeer

Vandermeer is among beautiful stylist and author of numerous works, none better than his collection thingy City of Saints and Madmen. I’ve been following his career with interest.

Daniel Woodrell

Another writer I’ve only recently discovered, I discovered Woodrell on another discount pile in the form of his novel Winter’s Bone. I liked that plenty so I ordered everything else he’d written. Right now I’m very much enjoying his most recent novel, The Maid’s Version.

That’s fifteen writers I’m very fond of. Eleven of them are men. Eleven of them are Americans, three British and one South African. All of them are contemporary or near-contemporary. Chandler was born earliest, but Greene published earliest. There were a few others who didn’t quite make the list for one reason or another, such as Iain Banks, John Crowley, William Gay (haven’t read his stories), M. John Harrison, Jonathan Lethem (plenty more of his to read), Kim Stanley Robinson, Kurt Vonnegut, Irvine Welsh and Ma Jian (he’s only written about three books). And then there are Australian writers I like but haven’t read everything by, such as Garry Disher, Andrez Bergen, Simon Haynes, Paul Haines (I have read all of his), Bruce Russell, Kaaron Warren, and plenty of others.

So, which writers would make a similar list if you were to construct one?

What I read in 2012, and some books to start 2013 with

December 31, 2012 2 comments

Books read in 2012

I managed to hit 70 books read in 2012, which I’m very pleased about. This is the highest number I’ve read in a year since I began documenting my reading fully in 2008. This year I discovered a number of authors I hadn’t read before but whom I took an instant liking to: the crime novels of American Megan Abbott, Australian crime novels by Garry Disher, and the works of American Southern writers William Gay and Daniel Woodrell. I read a few more novels by authors I’d already read before: English author Pat Barker’s non-WWI novels, more from the peerless J M Coetzee, Graham Greene, Johnathan Lethem (whom I’m still undecided on), DBC Pierre (whom I’ve decided I don’t like) and more. Two of my favourite novels of the year though were by writers I hadn’t read much of previously: The City and the City by China Mieville and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. Overall, my tastes seem to run mainly to crime novels and Southern Gothic, and my interest in speculative fiction is on the wane. Here’s the full list.

Abbott, M – The Song is You, Queenpin, Die a Little, Bury Me Deep

Atwood, M – Oryx & Crake

Auster, P – The Brooklyn Follies

Barker, P – Another World, Border Crossing

Bergen, A – Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat

Block, L – Grifter’s Game

Brown, L – Fay, Joe

Brautigan, R – Trout Fishing in America, In Watermelon Sugar

Broderick/Di Fillipo – Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010

Burroughs, WS – Rub Out the Words: Letters of WSB 1959-74

Byfield, M – Flight

Carter, A – Prime Cut

Coetzee, J M – Foe, Boyhood

Covich, S – When We Remember They Call Us Liars

Chabon, M – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Deane, J – The Norseman’s Song

Dick, Philip K – The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike, The Simulacra

Disher, G – Blood Moon, The Dragon Man, Kittyhawk Down

Downham, J – Before I Die

Ellroy, J – The Black Dahlia

Faust, C – Money Shot

Gay, W – The Long Home, Provinces of Night, Twilight, Wittgenstein’s Lolita

Greene, G A Gun for Sale, Stamboul Train, The End of the Affair, Graham Greene: A Life in Letters

Hyde/Wintz – Precious Artifacts: A PKD Bibliography

Krasnostein, A (ed) – 2012

Ishiguro, K – Never Let Me Go

Kurkov, A – The Good Angel of Death

Lethem, J – The Disappointment Artist, Amnesia Moon

Luckhurst, R – The Angle Between Two Walls – J G Ballard

Mieville, C – The City and the City, Embassytown

McCarthy, C – The Crossing

McHugh, M – After the Apocalypse

Mosley, W – Devil in a Blue Dress

Orwell, G – Down and Out in Paris and London 

Pasternak, B – Doctor Zhivago

Pierre, DBC – Ludmilla’s Broken English, Vernon God Little

Palmer, C – PKD: Exhilaration and the Terror of the Postmodern

Priest, C – Boneshaker

Richardson, D – Ultra Soundings

Roth, P – The Plot Against America

Steinbeck, J – The Pearl

Stephenson, N – The Diamond Age

Swofford, A – Jarhead

Warren, K – Through Splintered Walls

Wessely, T (ed) – Epilogue

Weisman, A – The World Without Us (NF)

Woodrell, D – Winter’s Bone, Under the Bright Lights, Tomato Red, Give Us a Kiss, The Death of Sweet Mister

Books to read in 2013

I buy books a lot faster than I read them and thus I seem only to read about half of the books I buy. So I should slow down on the book buying, right? Riiiight 😉 Here’s my ‘immediate to-read’ list of 14, to be distinguished from my extended to-read list of 200+

Barker, P – Double Vision, Toby’s Room

I like Pat Barker quite a lot and I’ve managed to read at least half of her novels now. I complained a little to myself that she wrote too many books about WWI, but then in actual fact I prefer her WWI stuff to the contemporary novels of hers I read in 2012. Thus I’m looking forward to reading her latest novel, Toby’s Room, more than the older Double Vision.

Brown, H – Red Queen, After the Darkness

Russell of Reflexiones Finales put the thought of Australian writer Honey Brown into my head, and I’ve finally gotten around to picking up two of her novels today. I’ve made a brief start on Red Queen this afternoon and I like it plenty so far.

Coetzee, J M – Master of Petersburg

I’m not in a huge hurry to finish ploughing my way through the 7-8 Coetzee novels I’m yet to read, but I’ll get there eventually. I suspect I’ll pick up a couple more throughout the year.

Bergen, A – One Hundred Years of Vicissitude

Andrez Bergen’s second novel is on my immediate list courtesy of his excellent Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat. And he’s nearly finished a third novel. And a fourth, I think…

Disher, G – Wyatt

I’ve read a few Challis & Destry mysteries, but this will be the first I’ve seen of the Wyatt series.

Kempshall, P (ed) – Tales from the Second Storey

I picked this up at the KSP Minicon a few months ago and it has a very impressive Table of Contents…

Kerouac/Ginsberg – Letters

I love William Burroughs – his writing and his life – so much that I’m prepared to branch out into reading the letters of his friends now 🙂

Laidler, J – Pulling Down the Stars

I’ve almost finishing reading this one by the author of The Taste of Apple. Expect a review very soon.

McCullers, C – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Been meaning to read this for a long time, but my mum says it’s awesome so I’ll read it.

Penzler, (ed) – The Lineup

A collection of interviews with famous crime writers on how they came up with their protagonists.

Temple, P – Truth

I hear it’s good.

Xinran – China Witness

Another non-fiction book by the author of The Good Women of China.