What a marvelous work.
In a short reading span of around one month, I have read all of William Gay's books except for the short story collections, and I can say Provinces of Night—the middle novel—is my favorite. It is bookended by Gay's two other novels that muscle their ponderances past hillbilly squalor and squabbling of Southern Gothic offerings while at home in the 21st Century's continuing obsession with criminal machinations. In The Long Home, there's Dallas Hardin, the epitome of the despot bully stretching out his crime domain. And in Twilight, the malfeasances of the town's undertaker, Fenton Breece, reaches past current mind-numbing violence with a criminality encompassing the lower, repugnant depravities of mental illness.
Not so with Provinces of Night. It is hunting something more profound rooting through this culture and time. Something that can make sense; something that can fight, then transcend; something that can make bearable “the dark waters moving below”(Doubleday, ISBN 0385499272, c.2000, p.158). In this venue of 1953's Tennessee hill country, a crime theme would seem mandatory, yet, under author Gay's pen on this one, it would be an insult. Sure, there's a police character—Sheriff Bellweather—but, he's more the overseer of the irony maintained than of the citizenry unbounded.
Storywise, it's just a story. An old man—E. F. Bloodworth—comes home run-down, afflicted, and indigent. He had left his wife 20 years before with nothing but three ungrown boys and a scratch farm to follow the lonely and obsessional life of a Bluesman. Plus, “he never could let a road alone”(p.109). Cowed with cane and a banjo, he's unwelcome by all but his grandson Fleming, who, with his goofball friend Albert, settles him into a primitive hovel trailer. The action becomes reaction from his resentful sons, his forgiving but inaccessable ex- wife, and various old-timers in the community of Ackerman's Field. Sub-stories spin off like mud-daubers on bested spiders through the Bloodworth family members, with both present-time and backstory-time filling paragraphs alongside anecdotal meanderings, stories within stories, and folksy tidbits like, “you couldn't see after the business a settin hen could accumulate”(p.246).
Now, as the old man challenges the doormat for the muddy boots of his relatives, Fleming rises as the hero of these pages. He's really the only one steering in an estimable way, and 16-year-old Raven Lee Halfacre turns him leeward. “Life blindsides you so hard you can taste the bright copper blood in your mouth, then it beguiles you with a gift of profound and appalling beauty,” he muses, instilling Raven as his “firefly” over the “dark water, visionary and profoundly mysterious”(p.287). His departure maps the only sane path. Literally as well as symbolically, a Deliverance-like lake is coming to bury iterant and indigenous lifestyles. Marketed as progress, this TVA governmental action as seen from the decks of Noah's Ark is also a cleansing of sorts(1), and author Gay's un-accoladed eye notes the Cherokee lineage of the Bloodworths.
Of the three sons, Brady, the youngest, gets the most ink. Warren is estranged by winning medals during WWII, his mind and body “slackened from liquor”(p.106) as a stereotypical noir character placating his inner demons. Boyd is off to Detroit living out the cliché of chasing the wife after she's run away with the traveling salesman, leaving his son Fleming at home to seek his own direction. Fleming burns the house down. Brady's still at home with Mommy, depending on hex spells to order his world into a childish, avenger vision. Moreover, he has vehemently stewed up a bitter ointment for Dad's homecoming by housing him without heat, electricity, or water during a "toad frog winter"(p.27). “I get started on him and it's like somebody jabbed a stick down inside my head and stirred everything up,” Brady spits. “I could have killed him”(p.86). Fleming beats him with a copy of Wolfe's Of Time and the River, disseminating his inane magic “like smoke”(p.287).
From outside of this microcosm comes two characters as a festivus for the rest of us: Merle from Detroit vacations with Fleming's neighbors and beds him into a “world of softer and warmer senses”(p.63) then leaves him without word to go back to her husband. And Neal—Warren's grown son—just cares about the next party. “I never think about anything,” characterizes Merle. “I just do what ever comes next”(p.62). Neal thinks “the world is his front yard, and everything else, people or what ever, that's just stuff left lying around for him to play with.”(p.215). Mainstream culture is viewed as detached, insensitive, and unworthy of seige.
But, as always, it's just a story, told thousands of times with as many variations as humanity can give it. Author Gay rambles enough to impress life without emphasis on plot and deliberate meaning over action. He does this in a way few authors can:
That's how he tells it through characters' mouths. This is how he does it expositionally:
Stylistically, author Gay is sorcerer. At least since Erskine Caldwell, Southern Gothic has been waist-deep in pulp, albeit with a loftier appetite. While the tropes are there as harbor buoys or mysto storm waves for the story to attach itself to or sling off of, the typical blustering assaults are not present. In its place is a landscape resonant with earthy atmosphere and generational folklore. From the old highbinders' tales on the porch in cainbottom chairs around Itchy Mamas to the modern buffoonery of the naked blow-up doll at the mailbox or the hog in the taxicab, passed-down or passed-around stories sweep through the novel like a blast of bawdy yet evocative grapeshot. To author Gay, the unknown is as important as the supposed reality of things because it justifies Nature to human emotions and dreams and an almost Celtic mysticism as well. The wind mourns “like something grieving in the pine branches”(p.268) for ex-wife Julia, just as—unbeknownst to her—E. F. expires in the snowy forest around her house. He thinks “blood will call to blood”(p.85), drumrolling the largest Southern trope of them all: loyalty to family.
As Gay's words run their self-afflicted gauntlet, it is all perseverance against despair and the myriad hungers that splatter up a man's insides like grease on the griddle. What makes a man forsake his kin, his sworn duty? Beyond the wanderlust, for old E. F. “it'd be them old songs he'd be drunk on. That old lonesome-soundin banjo”(p.85). The siren song of the troubadour's itch has buried unconscious connections he tries to scratch with his music. “It leaves you feeling like you heard something important but you can't quite figure out what it was,” says Raven about his songs, songs so nihilistic and satiric it imagines “a specter you could see through, and all you saw when you looked was a swirling empty darkness”(p.234). Inarticulate, even Bloodworth himself says “the music was its own story”(p.177). His choice was the Devil's bargain—an exchange he seems the worse for during the novel's striking time—and only Fleming instinctively senses it was unavoidable. Maybe, with Raven(2), he will barter a better shuffle with Fate's mediator.
1)Possibly the most arresting image appears in the Prologue, as a digger for the upcoming lake and dam project that'll put all of Ackerman's Field underwater unearths up a wide-mouthed Mason jar with the remains of an unwanted baby inside. “The devil had to let things slide elsewhere to keep an eye on that place”(p.204).
2) Poe nailed it for all of us concerning the raven: darkness and death. Will the typewriter be Fleming's banjo? After all, he sees it as a “alchemical device”(p.67). Is she Poe's harbinger, foretelling Fleming's future with his Demons?