- Crossroads and Memory in William Gay's Provinces of Night
Perhaps William Gay's most well-known story is that of the paperhanger—not the short story bearing that title, but the story of Gay himself, long-time drywall hanger and son of a sharecropper. Gay was the first in his family to graduate from high school, where one of his teachers noticed him reading Zane Grey novels and gave him Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. "Wolfe's novel," William Giraldi relates in an interview-based essay on Gay's corpus, "ignited him to his core; it proffered the insight that this can be done, that a writing life for him was not a pipe dream" (331). After that, Gay quickly found some of his favorite authors such as Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy: "The Signet edition of A Good Man is Hard to Find," Gay told Derrick Hill, "was the best thirty-five cents I ever spent" (Hill). Gay even formed a fairly close friendship with the elusive McCarthy while they both lived in Tennessee; he talked to him frequently on the phone and read Suttree in manuscript (Hill). Literature by fellow working-class writers also inspired Gay. He admired Larry Brown, whom he met at the 2007 Oxford Conference for the Book (Cash 242). Despite thematic differences in their written work, that Brown and Gay came from blue-collar backgrounds and taught themselves to write became the basis of friendship between the two and inspired much comparison of their fiction by readers and reviewers.
Gay faced the same challenge Brown faced: that of bringing his writing to prominence and leaving the story of how he became a writer in the background. [End Page 146] Reviews of Gay's work usually dwell more on biography than on his writing, creating what fellow Tennessee novelist Tony Earley calls the "myth of the drywall hanger"—that is, the myth that Gay is "some kind of working class savant" or a "Rain Man of Letters." The implication is that without an MFA, without exposure to academia, Gay should never have become a successful writer; that he achieved literary success must be explained as an anomaly, an exception to the rule of the elite. "Who knows," Earley speculates cynically, "maybe five hundred years from now, some misguided but clamorous band of second-tier scholars will waste time debating who really wrote the books of William Gay because, God knows, a drywall hanger from Hohenwald, Tennessee, with little formal education, would have been incapable of doing so himself."
In reality, almost no time passed before audiences started questioning Gay's ability to produce his own work. "I had this one woman ask me if I had anyone helping me write my books," Gay related with a laugh to Keith Rawson. "She said, 'I've known your family a long time and they're not that smart and I've known you since you were growing up and you weren't that smart either.' And she wanted to know if I had anybody who took out the little words and put in the big words?" (Rawson). Gay shrugged her comment off with humility and good humor, but similar logic plaguing Gay's reputation in academia is far from humorous. The overwhelming silence on the subject of William Gay in southern criticism is a testament to the enduring class-based prejudice that haunts working-class authors even in the allegedly liberal world of academia.1
In the wake of the birth of new southern studies and invigorating new discussions about the global South, fiction by blue-collar authors like Gay has been overlooked as too provincial and unsophisticated; the latent fear, it seems, is that acknowledging Rough South fiction like Gay's will cause southern criticism to backslide and forfeit the progress it has made since the turn of the century.2 As Michael Kreyling attests, the emergence of new southern studies at the turn of the twenty-first century was a deeply self-conscious response to what Richard Gray calls southern criticism's sense of "its own marginality and even 'failure'" (4). Kathryn McKee and Annette Trefzer articulate the mission...