The plots focus on poor men who hold few advantages. Some, like Bascom, a “lost penniless wanderer,” are innocuous. In “Riding Off into the Sunset: Starring Gary Cooper”, he wanders around the Star Vue Drive movie theater looking for a job.
“I’ve been broke my whole life and haven’t robbed a bank yet,” Bascom says.
“Well, you’re young,” says the management. “Give yourself time.”
Others are well beyond governance. Hershel Clay, the twisty firebug from “Nighttime Awakening”, “(walks) like a man above snakes, a man who couldn’t fit snakes into his schedule.”
Clay shoots his “popskull moonshine whisky”, doing blackjack at Goblin’s Knob, the watering hole where the cooler is always “started” to appease or fuel the colorful outcasts of Ackerman’s Field, the imaginary Gay community at the heart of his work. . (Small-town worshipers have unfurled a sign that offers local sinners a stark choice: ROCK IN SWEET JESUS’ BARMS OR ROASTED IN HELL.)
In part, Gay is a tongue-in-cheek comic book writer who can’t hold back a periodic impulse to work blue. “Buddy Bradshaw and the Judge’s Daughter,” a ridiculous bit of country-boy rawness, involves a phallic cob of freshly picked corn, and the gag only goes up from there.
Like a buckskin prophet of yesteryear, Gay summons America from its distraught frontier. In “The Trace”, one of the greatest action films of all time, “land pirates” plague 19th century travelers along the Natchez Trace: “There was no law there- down and there was no God God had thrown up his hands in disgust and denied all responsibility for it all.
With its revealing autobiographical essays and invaluable “Postscript” (a lengthy panel discussion hosted by Georgia State University/Perimeter College’s “The Chattahoochee Review”, “Stories from the Attic” is an important introduction to the major currents in the writing of Gay and his life.
His home for a time was a “dilapidated wide single trailer”, according to JM White, but he was primarily a private, cultured gentleman who preferred to live in the sticks. He spoke with a smoky cadence. He didn’t have a weapon. He published his first book at the age of 59, “The Long Home” (1999).
Born between 1939 and 1943 (there is some dispute over the exact year), he grew up, writes Gay, in “sharecropper circumstances” in Hohenwald, a town in central Tennessee (population 4,000), where he spent most of his life. He was soon compelled to read and write, although he was too poor to buy books or composition material.
In his excellent two-part essay “Reading the South,” Gay celebrates his first loves: horror comics, the rising black of the South, and Signet Books, the post-war paperback publisher whose trashy covers ( and affordability) attracted the budding author to “one” and serious literature, that is to say from Mickey Spillane to William Faulkner, who would become his idol.
For Gay, Faulkner was the bomb and “As I Lay Dying” (1930) “his most successful book”. The sage of the hills, he claims, wrote about depravity, but “he never denies his characters their basic humanity”.
If Gay was still a representative of the high literary tradition of the South, he was unconventional, increasingly drawn to the occult and the paranormal. He dedicated his second novel, “Provinces of Night” (2000) to William Blake. He wrote a novel about his state’s Bell Witch Legend. His gothic supernatural thriller “Twilight” (2006) won acclaim from Stephen King, King of Fear.
As a colleague put it, Gay “lived in a writer’s trance.” He often hurls obscure adjectives — “evil” and “earthly” — like talismans of bone tools into the darkest darkness of Ackerman’s field. While facing the pains of humanity in his own way, he never lets go of the hopes and dreams of ordinary people. In “The Homecoming”, a young man named Winer walks away from an unpleasant encounter with a wealthy relative:
“The world he was heading towards seemed endless in its possibilities, the lives he could lead, the people he could be, limitless and complex. The world was full of places he could go, people he could be. he could encounter, emotions he could make his own.
Thus, the cumulative effect is of magnitude.
“Stories from the Attic”
by William Gay
368 pages, $26.95