“The short stories and story fragments in this collection are vintage William Gay and unequivocally Southern Gothic. From a Machiavellian police officer to a small-time hustler with a makeshift corncob prosthetic to a vengeful old woman’s ghastly pickling skills to sins that traverse multiple generations, Gay weaves his gritty tales around a cast of very real yet borderline supernatural residents of his legendary Tennessee landscape.”
Southern Literary Review graciously published my review of William Gay’s latest posthumous work. You can read the complete review here.
You can also click on the image above to buy the book from Dzanc Books or look for it in your favorite bookstore.
Robert Gwaltney’s The Cicada Tree takes place in mid-century, rural South Georgia. A place where racial segregation and social class division serve as a background to a fascinating story about a local wealthy family and the secrets they harbor. And I’m not talking about typical “skeletons in the closet” secrets that all families have, especially in the South. I’m talking about secrets that, if told, could alter lives, towns, perhaps even the course of history.
The story begins with two young girls, one White and one Black–both third-graders and best friends, collecting “bushels” of cicada husks in their back yard. Analise is the precocious daughter of Claxton, the town drunk, and Grace Newell, a woman “gifted” with forbidden talents. Etta Mae is an orphaned girl living with her grandmother, Miss Wessie, who is the live-in made for the Claxtons. Both girls have extraordinary natural talents for music. Analise, a seeming magnet for trouble, also has a flair for mischief with level-headed and sweet Etta Mae serving as her conscious.
The 13-year, generational cicadas are a constant presence and din throughout the story. A biblical pestilence that seems to presage a greater storm on the horizon. One that eventually will break over the town of Providence, Georgia, laying bare the troubled secrets of the Mayfield family.
“They done come back you know?” He cupped his hand to his disfigured ear. “Can’t you hear them? Them ole locusts…they got secrets they keep. Things they know and keep buried deep down in the ground with them–until they have the mind to come back. To sing out what they know…mind your secrets,” Halbert said. “Keep ’em close.”
The Mayfields, Kingston and Cordelia, are wealthy socialites and owners of the Mayfield Pickle Company, the only major employer in town. Along with their daughter, Marlissa—also a third-grader, the family shares a mysterious attractiveness known as that “Mayfield shine.” A bizarre charm and allure that goes far beyond their impeccable beauty. They also share a troubled past—one filled with secrets, tragedy, and perhaps even ghosts. After all, what would a good Southern Gothic novel be without a maybe-ghost that represents past sins?
After a fire burns down the private school where the local rich kids are isolated away from the rural working-class kids, Marlissa Mayfield begins attending the public (White) school where she immediately becomes the most popular kid and begins a complicated and dangerous friendship with Analise. A mind-bending relationship that threatens to pull apart everything Analise holds dear.
Gwaltney’s descriptions of rural life in the segregated South are cinematic in both texture and girth. His use of dialogue, with only a smattering of vernacular—just enough to feel authentic, is a real treat to read. Equally impressive is his ability to realistically drive the first-person point of view of an eleven-year-old girl from the 1950s. One who is challenged both by the stifling social norms of her time and the magical realism that invades her world.
Pick up a copy of The Cicada Tree at your favorite independent bookstore or the usual on-line sellers. Clicking on the cover image below will take you to the Amazon site.
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.