Someone like me — who reads all the time, every day of every week of every year, famous among my family and neighbors who never read and so gently make fun of me when we’re in the parking lot of a playoff game or in the bleachers or at the hospital holding vigil for yet another relative dying far too young – needs a reading companion. I never thought it would be a daughter, but my eldest, at 23, who lives in Texas now, is that. We trade novels, send each other books in the mail, and talk about them as if we were friends – which we are not. She is my child, the one who learned to read at three and never stopped – exactly what I did.
But she is not home.
This year, we were obsessed with women mystery writers whose work we stayed up late to finish – Kate Atkinson, Denise Mina, Tana French (English, Scottish, and Irish!) as well as Laura Lippman’s first Baltimore novels.
This year, I read Clarice Lispector for the first time, which was rewarding and intellectual work.
But the words which affected me most, the stories I discovered accidentally and thought about all year, were from Tennessee. Short stories. The form everyone sighs about as if it will expire. No. Uh-uh. Not at my house.
In January, in the library, running my fingers along the spine for Ernest J. Gaines, since I was going to teach two of his novels and wanted extra copies for students with no money, I paused at William Gay. I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down. And that is what I read over and over, all winter and spring. Those stories! An old man banished to a retirement home and coming back to his farm in rural Tennessee, where the fence posts and mist and woods and fields are like heaven to him, his son trying to dislodge him because he’s rented the place to “poor white trash,” the epic battle featuring a taxidermied dog and flammable liquids. Another old man, burden on his son, a murderous fighter who’s lost his memory but not his cunning and anger, and Gay’s descriptions of his mind and bludgeoning strength somehow lyrical. A younger man — a paperhanger — a suitcase, a small child, a death, and a mistake.
Gay’s prose speaks for itself:
It came to him that he was a repository of knowledge that was being lost, knowledge that no one even wanted anymore. The way the earth looked and smelled rolling off the gleaming point of a turning plow, the smell of the mule and the feel of the sweat-hardened harness and the way the thunderheads rolled up in the summer and lay over the hills like malignant tumors and thunder booming along the timberline and clouds unfolding in a fierce and violent coupling and seeding the furrows in a curious gift of ice that lay gleaming in the black loam like pearls.
That is the old man, returned to his own farm and relegated to the tenant shack. He may remind my daughter of her own grandfather in Oklahoma, or it may just be that even I feel this way now – that what I learned as a child is now extraneous, except to my memory.
William Gay had left Hohenwald, Tennessee, his birthplace, to live in Chicago and New York, but he returned home in 1978 and never left again. I left my home in California that year, was gone briefly, and returned in 1984, and will probably never leave. I read those stories every night, envisioning a writer who returned to his small unremarkable birthplace which was peopled and haunted with hundreds of stories, as is mine. He made his place magical and frightening and indelible, which is what I always hoped to do. In February, he died there, in Tennessee, just after I finished the stories for the first time, and began to read them again.
I returned the library book. I missed it. This week, I’m buying a copy for my daughter, to send her for Christmas. Gay’s people, though white men from rural Tennessee, will remind her of her own uncles and friends from here, the place she left, the library where I was so lucky to touch a spine and stop. William Gay’s fencewire and porches and people.
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