America lost a national treasure on Thursday, when the brilliant writer William Gay died of heart failure at the age of 68.
I’d never heard of Gay before I picked up the 2007 edition of The Best American Short Stories, which included his story “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?” From the first sentence (“The Jeepster couldn’t keep still.”), I was hooked.
In the story, Gay wrote in the third person but altered his writing style to reflect the texture and pulse of the story. (This is not something writers attempt very often. The best example I’ve read is Annie Proulx’s wondrous The Shipping News.) Gay’s protagonist, referred to only as “The Jeepster,” is a crazy drug addict whose ex-girlfriend has been killed, and he’s on a mission to see her body at the funeral home. The prose matches his state of mind: jittery, taut, hopped up on adrenaline and who knows what else.
Like all the best stories or books, this one snatched me up from my couch within the first few sentences, dropped me into a completely different world, and took me on the ride of my life. I ask for nothing more, from a writer. (Then again, as all writers know, that’s asking rather a lot.)
The story stuck in my mind, so last year, when I saw a copy of Gay’s full-length novel Provinces of Night in my favorite used bookstore, I snagged it. I was not disappointed.
Truly great writers, especially the Southern ones, largely eschew flashy plot tricks (Vampires! Time travel! Convoluted international intrigues!); which is probably why their books are sometimes ignored by the general public. The Great Ones tell simple stories about ordinary people, but they do it with such grace and skill, they bring other writers to their knees. William Gay may not have been a household name, but rest assured – almost every talented author you can think of knew who he was.
At the end of 2007, in Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King named Gay’s novel Twilight the “best book I’ve read all year.” (I haven’t read that one. I understand it’s a bit macabre.)
Gay was a good ole boy, in the best southern sense – grizzled and squinty, wearing rumpled old clothing even in his author jacket photos. You got the sense that the cigarette hanging from his fingers hadn’t been left there as an artsy prop, but that Gay simply hadn’t thought to set it down.
Interviews revealed his wonderful rumbly voice, his molasses-thick Tennessee accent. In this conversation with Oxford American, Gay reminisced about the days when he’d hang sheetrock and paint houses by day, then go home and craft stories all evening.
“When I was workin’ construction I was writing at night…but it’s like being in the closet, you know…you don’t come out of the closet – you don’t come out on Monday morning and tell these guys you’re workin’ with about the sonnet you wrote over the weekend.”
He still sounded like that humble, broke handyman, and if you’d struck up a conversation with him down at the Cracker Barrel, you might have dismissed him as a dumb hick. You’d certainly never have guessed that you were speaking with a poet, a literary genius.
I guess the title of this post should have carried the past tense – Gay doesn’t write, not anymore. But he did, for a while, and the world is a more beautiful place for it.
My friend Karen actually met William Gay – you can read her tribute to him here.