Let us now sing the praises of William Gay, which I have done twice before over the last months. But never enough. This occasion is Provinces of Night, the most challenging and profound of the now-trio of works that have fallen into my hands.
We are as usual in rural Tennessee, town of Ackerman’s Field. Year 1952. Gay serves up a feast of complex characters and wonderful names. The Bloodworths—E.F., Fleming, Brady, Boyd. There’s itchy Mama, Sheriff Bellewether, Raven Lee Halfacre, Snowwhite Café, Junior Albright.
E.F. is a vagrant, wandering banjo picker who left his family years earlier, wants to come home to die of the stroke that has put him at death’s door. Fleming is the grandson who has known E.F. only by legend. Brady is the bitter, fortune-telling, hex-fixing son who stuck by his mother through the decades of the absent dad. Warren and Boyd are the disloyal sons who drift (not too far, though) from the homesite. Raven Lee is the 16-year-old beauty with the drunken, whorish mother whom Fleming worships and adores beyond his years and his capacity to control. Junior is Fleming’s ne’er do well best friend, who turns out to have an unexpected yearning for penance and redemption.
Powerful literary figures from our world appear throughout, Thomas Wolfe dominating, nourishing the soil of what might otherwise be simple—if captivating—tales of the rural folk.
One of the book’s first events concerns a magazine’s return of a handwritten manuscript that Fleming had dreamed would be the first step on his stairway to literary success, the first instance of a constant theme of creation and loss. E.F.’s banjo recordings and blues songs (soulful enough they’re mistaken for Negro records) are another. Then there is Raven Lee’s hunger for that blues music that so bespeaks her life.
Behind it all is the story of a great flood, for the TVA is afoot, and the incipient dam will soon destroy what generations got, begot, built and buried.
And then, of course, there’s Gay’s language. . . ..
The underwater road looked inexplicable, freighted with lost meaning, like some old imponderable road an ancient race had built to a place that no longer existed.
Echoes of Cormac McCarthy, worthy of William Faulkner. I mean it.