William Gay's new novel, set in backwoods Tennessee, follows the neo-Faulknerian prose path and takes its title from a 1973 novel by Cormac McCarthy, cited as the epigraph: "Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them." It's hard to imagine Gay's young protagonist, Fleming Bloodworth, finding provinces much darker than those of the novel. His characters are marked by violence, raging conflicts of a bloodline, and lots of moonshine. Men who disappear for years return as if they forgot the car keys in the kitchen. Amidst all this is an unremitting disposition toward mayhem. Gay gives us the raw materials of Southern life, with sexual disasters thrown into a family saga set in hillbilly high relief, circa 1952.
Provinces of Night centers on 18-year-old Fleming Bloodworth and his labyrinth of kith and kin. There's a bitter father who takes off, knife at hand, to find his wife and the man she ran off with. Fleming's grandpa, E.F. Bloodworth, hitches a ride back from Arkansas where he has lived incommunicado for 30 years and moves into a trailer a few miles from his estranged wife, whom he cannot see because his youngest son (Fleming's uncle Brady) won't allow it. Brady, who puts hexes on people, is enraged at the old man for abandoning them. Finally, there is the boy's Uncle Warren, a hard-drinking sexual athlete whose son, Neal, Fleming's first cousin, moves into town, a force of nature destined to leave broken beings in his wake.
As the characters wreck cars, betray one another, drink hard and chase women, young Fleming, a sensitive soul given to reading Thomas Wolfe, thinks about the arrangement of words on paper and, in time, the object of his affection, an exotic young beauty named Raven Lee.
There are descriptive passages of great beauty in this novel, and a cosmic vision of the natural world and humankind engaged in a primordial struggle: "He would be jarred out of sleep by an enormous concussion of thunder, open his eyes to a room of photoelectric light so intense all the color had been drained away. The thunder would go rolling across the bottomland in diminishing intensity, and wrapped in a blanket he'd go onto the porch and watch the storm blowing in from the southwest, the dome of light faulted by lightning so that the wild unfolding landscape of agitated trees and wet black stone was shuttered light to dark and back again like a series of snapshots that bore no relation to one another."
The novel also has patches of purple prose that make one cringe, imagining that Gay went to bed reading Faulkner or Wolfe, dreamt the densest of their prose streams (with McCarthy thrown in for good measure) and woke up grabbing James Joyce's Ulysses before first coffee. Phrases like "telluric dark" and "stertorous breathing" and "heat felt malefic" achieve the effect of making you want to, well, open the window.
This is Gay's second novel, and if it does not match the standards of his first, The Long Home, published last year to great acclaim, one nevertheless realizes that this is a writer of striking talent. The novel's deeper problem -- and greater sign of his gifts -- is the unresolved tension between comedy and tragedy. Fleming is not a tragic character in any sense, but the surrounding doom of his family is like a cloak of tragedy. Gay, however, gives us little insight into what Fleming thinks about the parents who have deserted him; he never reflects on his mother. She is simply absent from the house down in the bottomland where he lives, alone. He has no psychological past.
And yet certain set pieces in which male characters blunder into emotional disasters have a generosity of spirit reminiscent of works by Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty. When Albright, a good ole boy without much mental timber, pays Uncle Brady $50 to put a hex on a contractor whom he owes money because of a damaged tool, the contractor soon goes down in his airplane. Guilt-laden Albright thus presents himself at the widow's house, offering to paint it for free, unable to admit his dark deed or need for atonement. After a long day scraping and priming the sideboards, Albright ends up a benighted guest for dinner:
"There'll be pie later, she said, attendant at his shoulder.
"Pie later, Albright thought in a bourbon-diffused wonder, slicing into his steak. It seemed to fall away in tender strips before the actual touch of the knife and at its center it was the exact shade of pink he would have chosen had he a say in the matter. He sliced off a section and chewed. He closed his eyes and for once seemed at a loss for words to express himself.
"I can tell you're pleased, she said ....
"It's the best of anything I ever put in my mouth, Albright said."
The luck that visits Albright, a dimwit of great charm, stands in jagged contrast to the bad breaks that befall Fleming Bloodworth, a young man trying to be virtuous as he falls in love with 16-year-old Raven Lee, whose mama sleeps with men for money. The comic scenes that color the novel's best moments give way to a reckoning of violence and dislocation that force Fleming to make a break with the only world he has known. It would appear that the author has his protagonist set up for a sequel; one hopes so.
In acknowledging a certain debt to Cormac McCarthy, the author naturally sets himself up for a comparison. That is unfortunate. McCarthy's obsession with violence is like fuel on a fire, where Gay shows a broader view of the human experience, indeed a more generous one in the minor characters whose accidents with life have a Shakespearean resonance. Albright and old Grandpa Bloodworth could hold their own with paunchy Falstaff in a night of foamy mugs.
Provinces of Night is not a fully realized novel, yet it is better than many others and leaves one eager to see how William Gay wrestles the impulses of comedy and tragedy that weave through his work like competing forces of a common psyche, as they do in much of the best of Southern literature.
The University of Georgia Press has just issued a paperback edition of Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement, by the late New Orleans writer, poet and former Jazz Fest executive director Tom Dent. In Southern Journey, Dent chronicled his journey through landmarks of protest in the South, such as Selma, Ala., and Greensboro, N.C. Last week, Dent, who died in 1998, was honored in Have You Seen Tom, a performance by Contemporary Arts Center composer in residence Hannibal Lokumbe, held at the CAC.