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“Fugitives of the Heart: A Novel” By: William Gay

Fugitives of the Heart by William Gay


“Fugitives of the Heart: A Novel” 

Author: William Gay 

Foreword by Sonny Brewer 

Postscript by J. M. White  

Publisher: Livingston Press 

Pages: 241 

Price: $28.95 (Hardcover) 

A Posthumous Novel by a Unique Southern Writer 

There is no way to exaggerate the singularity of William Gay’s life and career. Born in 1939 and raised in Lewis County, Tennessee, just north of Huntsville, in a home without electricity or plumbing, after high school Gay served in the Navy where he read constantly. He then returned home to a life as housepainter and sheet rock hanger by day and every evening read and wrote by hand. 

He married and raised four children in a house he built himself in the woods. Even then, he worked only enough to barely support the family, no more. Otherwise he read and wrote. His wife, who left him, attests to this. 

After decades of rejections Gay erupted on the American literary scene in 1998, heralded as a new Cormac McCarthy or a reincarnation of Faulkner. 

In only a few years he published three novels, the most impressive of which may be “The Long Home,” and three books of stories. Of the story collections, “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down” is, I think, the most powerful. 

Gay’s work, when it finally appeared, took the literary judges by storm. In his short career Gay won several major prizes: The William Peden Award, the James A. Michener Memorial Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among others. 

The French, who often embrace the American off-beat, like Poe, Faulkner and Jerry Lewis, gave Gay the Grand Priz de Litterature Policiere, for “Twilight.” 

At his death in 2012 we learned there were boxes of manuscripts, and the posthumous works of William Gay, like those of Hemingway, keep coming. 

This volume was edited by J. M. White and his team.  

Like almost all his fiction, “Fugitives” is set in rural Tennessee, this time in the 1930s, in a town called Allen’s Creek where iron ore is dug and crushed, dirty and backbreaking work. 

The characters are primal, often desperate, pitiless, either about to commit violence or actually engaged in it. Quarrels end in stabbings, shootings, lynching. 

“Fugitives of the Heart” is a rough coming-of-age novel and can be seen as a kind of homage to Mark Twain’s “Huck Finn.” The protagonist, Marion Yates, called Yates, is about 15. He can read, just, and like Huck is a youngster with a sound heart, capable of sensitive feeling, but has been brutalized by his environment almost beyond repair.  

In an early scene, a local farmer on a wagon drawn by mules pulls into Yates’ yard, and rolls Yates’ father’s dead body off the wagon. 

He has caught Yates’ father stealing from his smokehouse, shot him and is returning the corpse. He also drops a side of meat off the wagon: “‘I’m a fair man,’ he said, ‘If he wanted it bad enough to trade his life for it, then it’s his’n.’”  

Yates will grow up without a father, and his mother is useless, whining and lazy and a part-time prostitute. Nevertheless, at her death, Yates wails in agony “‘I am an orphan!’” 

He will survive by his wits and spends most of his time alone, in the woods, which become his home. 

Huck has his raft. Yates gets used to doing without walls: “‘Seems like they smother me. I can’t breathe right,’” he says.  

After his mother’s gruesome death Yates will live with a local widow, but this is NOT Huck Finn. Yates is a blossoming adolescent boy and it gets complicated. 

Yates becomes friends, mates, with a black man named Crowe but even that relationship is finally spoiled by man’s baser impulses.  

The plot is episodic and not hyper-complicated, but is not the central point. Gay was, without question, some kind of linguistic genius. His command of language is preternatural. The vocabulary and diction of his narrator, not his characters, would dwarf that of John Stuart Mill. 

A shack in the woods is “A temporary looking structure of poles and boards and blownoff tin replevied somewhere….” Replevied? Look it up. 

The commonest scenes are described in ways never before seen. A dirt road runs “straight as a chalk line into the sun as if some prior race with a penchant for astronomical accuracy had so aligned it.” 

The world is hard but Yates seeks softness and warmth. 

He tries with all his might to raise four orphaned baby rabbits, but one by one they die. Full of sadness, he buries each one. He is a “diminutive but conscientious undertaker.” 

There seems to be no safe home for Yates so, not surprisingly, he will, like countless other dislocated young Americans, “light out for the territory.” 

Before he leaves, however, he attends a traveling carnival and Gay describes Yates’ first view of fireworks, which describes for me our first view of the fiction of William Gay. “An explosion racked the firmament….the sky was lit by a vast Medusa of fire, colored serpents writhing in the darkness….” 

In 1980, at the urging of novelist Walker Percy, the LSU Press, a distinguished scholarly press, published a novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces,” which to universal amazement won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, posthumously. 

For LSU Press, it was a bonanza. Livingston Press at the University of West Alabama has been publishing new fiction diligently for years and it would be wonderful and well deserved if “Fugitives of the Heart” succeeded wildly and brought them the same kind of acclaim. 

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

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