LIVINGSTON PRESS, JUNE 30, 2021
Born and raised in poverty in Lewis County, Tennessee, William Gay was a self-taught writing savant who honed his craft through extensive reading and an obsessive desire to put his stories down on paper. He began to receive literary notoriety in 1998, but he was far from an overnight success. His first novel, The Long Home, was not published until Gay was in his late 50s. Those who knew William tell stories about how, despite the overwhelming obstacles placed before him, he persevered to become an important voice in Southern literature.
Before his death in 2012 at the age of 70, Gay saw three of his novels published as well as a couple of novellas and three collections of prose and short stories. But, it turns out that readers had only scratched the surface of the body of work of this extraordinary author, who spent forty years or more writing in relative obscurity. Through the remarkable efforts of J. M. White and William’s family, several more complete manuscripts and copious notes and letters have been unearthed from scattered boxes. Three novels have been posthumously published from this treasure trove, and a fourth (Fugitives of the Heart) has just been released.
Like most of Gay’s novels, Fugitives of the Heart takes place in mid-20th century, rural Tennessee. The fictional setting is one that was familiar to the author who grew up in a time and place that lagged behind much of the rest of the country in its efforts to shed the horrors of the Great Depression and gives the story a kind of post-apocalyptic vibe.
“The train went on into the falling night past farmers and past rich fields heavy with corn, past weary sharecroppers who’d let the night fall on them leading their mules from the darkening fields, past leaning clapboard shanties yellowlit against whatever prowled out there in the darkness.”
The protagonist, Marion Yates, is a half-wild teenager who is coming to age in the 1940s in a deteriorating mining community. With an outlaw father who is murdered for trying to steal food for the family and a prostitute mother dying of tuberculosis, Yates is forced to fend for himself. With a Huck Finn-like passion for freedom and distain for civilized society, the boy rambles through both wilderness and what passes as civilization in a series of adventures which are at times both heartbreaking and darkly comedic.
Similar to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the episodic plot is held together with the main storyline concerning the relationship between the boy, Yates, and a free-spirited black man on the run named Crowe. However, while Twain certainly haunts this novel, Fugitives is not a retelling of a classic. The dark mood, the themes, the lyricism is classic William Gay storytelling.
A common problem with episodic plots is coming up with a good ending. Twain solved this problem, though in an arguably unsatisfactory manner, by bringing back his wildly popular Tom Sawyer to conclude the narrative. But in Gay’s world, there is no dashing savior who can swoop in to rescue the downtrodden. The characters, and the reader, are left exposed to the realistic, violent, glorious grittiness which has become a hallmark of great Southern Gothic literature.
In addition to Twain, Gay openly displays other literary influences in the novel. He seems to have found that elusive middle ground of writing in a very descriptive, poetic style yet one that is approachable enough for a casual reader looking for a southern lit fix. Gay’s writing effortlessly combines the impactful punches of Cormac McCarthy’s terse writing and William Faulkner’s love of language. And while some may argue that Gay’s prose can at times seem overly ornate, a careful reading will show that each sentence is carefully written, each word prudent and perfectly used.
“He willed himself to make his body immutable as stone and imperishable to the harshest weathers that the world could send. He stared across the grave and across the preacher whose worn hands kept trying to stay the windrustled pages and to shield them from the first slant drops of rain the wind brought. Across the valley to the far soft-folded hills where the hollows lay in dark secrecy and where pale mist rose and doves called mournfully as hawks rode the updrafts of winds like vaguely chastening kites of metallic feathers.”
Fugitives of the Heart is not just any old posthumous novel. It was not released in order for heirs to make money on something the author never wanted to see published. This wasn’t a half-written story, and this isn’t a money grab. Instead, this completed work of art was gifted to us by a group of dedicated scholars and fans who want the rest of the world to know and recognize the genius of William Gay.
If you’re new to William Gay, this novel is not a bad place to start. And if you’re already a fan, you certainly don’t need me to tell you that this is a must have in your collection.
Available in hardcover at Livingston Press (click on image below), independent bookstores, and Amazon.