William Gay’s I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down is a collection of short stories with just about only three things in common: somebody gets murdered, they’re all in the general vicinity of the Southern thirteen, and he has successfully transmogrified the Southern Gothic into the Southern Morose. Three months ago I had never heard of William Gay, which is a damn shame because he died in 2012 and I just really wished I had known to shake his hand.
Gay grew up in Hohenwald, Tennessee, and published six books in his lifetime. Three more were discovered postmortem, and James Franco even got a hand on Gay’s first novel, The Long Home, to try and fail again at adapting Southern literature to film. We shall see how all that goes.
I read I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down with less than expectations. First and foremost, the title is borrowed from my favorite Faulkner piece, and the back cover has a quote on it from USA Today: “Every story is a masterpiece…in the Southern tradition of Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner.” That’s fine and good and I’m proud of him, I am. But equating any author with a drawl to Faulkner or O’Connor is almost a backhanded compliment, as if they couldn’t stand on their own in their own literary tradition. Nonetheless, I get why people automatically correlate a story to O’Connor and Faulkner when somebody gets dead in it and they’s speaking in dialect. I truly do. But I also think that William Gay makes one pivotal change in the Southern literary canon that each and every one of us needs to acknowledge.
When people talk to Southern Gothic, the genre or the trope, they’re talking about “A Rose for Emily,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Deliverance. I get it. Those hyperbolic examples of Southern shittiness have shaped the perceptions of Southernism for nearly a hundred years. What do we have other than necrophiliacs, outlaws, and incest? According to popular or well-regarded images of the South we don’t have much else. But what these worthy-yet-sometimes-shitty depictions of the South often miss are the ins and outs of verisimilitude that Sherwood Anderson defined in “The Book of the Grotesque” in Winesburg, Ohio:
It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
Anybody that’s studied Southern writing for any amount of time knows about the truth of the falsehood, and I’m not trying to be obscure or a smartass. Anderson’s definition is what makes Southern darkness its own distinct kind of darkness and a meaningful form of deterioration. William Gay knows how turn the darkness into something solely and completely turned toward truth. His characters are never more real than when they’re dreadfully unconcerned with whatever atrocity they committed.
In the title story, aging Meecham has left his nursing home where his son locked him up to return to his property, where it turns out a no-good, white trash Lonzo Choat has moved his family in. Meecham sets his sights to root the family out, buys a dog to bark all night that will bark at the command, “You hush.” Before he meets Lonzo Choat, Meecham tells Lonzo’s wife:
“You need to talk to Lonzo. He’ll be up here directly”
“I’m an old man,” Meecham said. “I may die directly.”
After Lonzo beats up on his wife and daughter, Meecham has a dream about getting his wife reanimated after she died. He wakes up to Nipper the dog dead by strangulation beside him, though it’s purposefully unclear if Lonzo or Meecham did it. Doesn’t matter, because Meecham gets the dog stuffed out of spite:
“He would love to tell Paul that he had paid a taxidermist a hundred and seventy-five dollars to stuff a ten-dollar dog for no other reason than to aggravate Lonzo Choat.”
But Choat still comes out the hero. Meecham leaves the story as somebody’s crazy papaw, and the true Southern hysteria sets in. Remarkably, William Gay is able to capture every authentic ounce of a surly old Tennessee man, just as he’s able to end his stories with the painful acknowledgment that the white trash evil villain would survive. That we cling to our truths so long and so hard that they turn around to bite our asses.
Other prime choice short stories in the collection include: “Bonedaddy, Quincy Nell, and the 15,000 BTU Electric Chair” and “Closure and Roadkill on the Life’s Highway.” Both stories manage to deal with somber subjects with the lightheartedness of a limerick, and prove that Gay follows Dorothy Allison, Jesmyn Ward, and Karen Russell’s reinvention of the Southern Gothic into something harder, deeper, more painful, more grotesque and more morose than their predecessors. Maybe. I think I’m lying about that, but it sounded right as I wrote it.
While the stories are critically and fundamentally above reproach, I think it’d be good to point to the flaws. Everybody dies, or somebody kills somebody. Gay’s blues are Jimmie Rodgers, not W.C. Handy. That means something—yes, his main subjects fall in line with Faulkner’s poor-as-hell Snopes family and Bundrens, but they’re awfully pale. I’m not asking you to read him for the new South literary tendency toward diversity, or for any other reason than if you care about a story, Gay knows how to tell one fine story. And he knows how to make you hurt, and how to turn a prose paragraph into a hitting, fighting, crying country song:
“A woman’ll warp your mind worse than whiskey ever dared to.”
–“Crossroads Blues” 156