By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY
Gay, a self-taught writer who died Thursday at the age of 68, reportedly of heart failure, was the son of Tennessee sharecroppers. He spent most of his working life as a carpenter and drywall hanger, but as a writer was compared with Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner.
I met him for the first time in 1999, at the annual Festival of Southern Writers, in Nashville, where he seemed terribly shy — until he mesmerized everyone reading aloud from his debut novel, The Long Home, a biblical kind of morality tale set during the Depression, with a devilish bootlegger.
Gay wrote fiction on and off since he was 13, collecting a stack of increasingly encouraging rejection letters. In 1998, when he was 55, he finally got two short stories published in literary magazines.
Amy Williams, a New York literary agent, read one of Gay’s stories, and says, “by the second paragraph, I was sucked in.” When she tracked him down in his hometown of Hohenwald, Tenn., Gay told her he doubted there was much money in “my kind of writing — about marginal people in marginal settings.”
“Let me worry about that,” she told him. Later, he would say, “I guess she was right.”
He went on to publish three novels, including Provinces of Night (2000) and Twilight (2006) and two short story collections.
Gay, who also wrote about music for The Oxford American magazine, identified with two of the characters in Provinces of Night:
He looked a lot like the fictional blues musician E.F. Bloodworth, who in the novel has “a craggy, hawklike face. His black eyes were heavylidded and sleeplooking, but watchful as a predator’s.”
And like Bloodworth’s grandson, Fleming, a would-be writer, Gay had a seventh-grade teacher who turned him on to literature with a gift of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.
“It blew me away,” Gay told me in a 2000 interview, recalling “that hunger for experience. I knew what that felt like.”
He already had decided that if it were so much fun to read stories, it would be even more fun to write them.
Williams says Gay’s prose was “a transporting experience, one where you get so happily lost in another world that it’s a real letdown to go back to your own. I will say that the same held true every time I spoke with him, or sat with him; he took my world from 78 to 33 rpm within 3 minutes of talking, and I always wanted to hear everything he had to say. I will miss that experience more than I know what to do with right now, but I’m profoundly grateful that his books will live on my shelf forever, calling for a visit when I need one.”
She’ll never forget the first time she heard the name of Gay’s hometown: Hohenwald, which sounds a lot like hole-in-wall, from an editor at The Georgia Review who had published Gay.
She tracked Gay down at his address on William Gay Road.
“I found it deeply amusing that the road was named after him and joked with him that he was lying about it,” she says. “Later, when he moved from William Gay Road, he walked to the end of that road, tore down the green neon road sign with his bare, drywall-hanging hands, and mailed it to me. Besides the manuscripts for short stories and novels he mailed to me, that was, hands-down, my favorite piece of mail.”
David Poindexter, publisher of MacAdam Cage, says Gay was scheduled to deliver his a new novel, Lost Country, next month, and hopes to publish it – if it doesn’t require any rewrites. He says editor Sonny Brewer, a friend of Gay’s, is trying to “determine the state of the manuscript.”