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After Gay’s death, I turned up snippets on the internet about at least two other unpublished novels.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Soon, I started reading about another unpublished novel, Stoneburner, that was to be released by newly-formed Anomolaic Press.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